|Eddie "pulls the strings" in this detail from Drew Friedman's cover art for his brother Josh's album, The Worst!|
"Success is a great deodorant. It takes away all your past smells."
|Can you imagine Ed's take on the "riot grrrl" movement?|
I wonder what Ed would have made of the nihilistic 1990s had he magically awoken, Rip Van Winkle-style, after a 15-year slumber. He probably would have found little solace in this new, unfamiliar decade. "Irony" was not in Eddie's vocabulary, let alone his wheelhouse. A staunch conservative despite his unorthodox lifestyle, he would have likely sneered at the namby-pamby, feel-good "inclusive" politics of the Clinton Administration. Culturally, Eddie would have been adrift. Out of touch with American youth even in his heyday,
Ed would have had no comprehension whatsoever of the so-called "alternative" or "grunge" scenes, though the riot grrrls might well have piqued his interest, evoking as they did the tough girl gangs who had once populated his screenplays and novels of the 1950s and 1960s. Without doubt, the jaundiced, unsentimental comedy of the era, typified by Seinfeld, Beavis and Butt-head, and The Onion, would have held little to no appeal for an old school softie like Ed.
|Little Shop: A curious milestone.|
It would not have occurred to Ed Wood, though, to dredge up or evoke the past -- especially the lowbrow, ephemeral stuff -- for the purpose of mocking it or making some satirical point. A troupe of hip young improv comics reenacting old Brady Bunch episodes onstage? That kind of thing would have sailed over Eddie's Brylcreemed head. No, when Edward D. Wood, Jr. raided America's junk drawer for inspiration, he did so with guileless, whole-grain sincerity.
Having inconveniently died in 1978, Eddie sadly would have missed the 1982 Off-Off Broadway debut of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's Little Shop of Horrors, a stage musical based on a low-budget 1960 movie directed by Roger Corman. That show, while not precisely the first of its species, nevertheless marked a significant milestone in the history of pop culture recycling.
Yes, the theatrical world had looked to the silver screen for inspiration before. Debuting way back in 1966, Sweet Charity had descended from Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabria (1957). A mere seven years later, Stephen Sondheim turned Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) into A Little Night Music.
But Little Shop was something different. This wasn't Fellini. This wasn't Bergman. This was Roger Corman, the Cheapskate King himself. Ashman and Menken's motives in writing their show weren't entirely, or even chiefly, malicious. They obviously had some affection for the source material and wanted those in the audience to care about the characters in their adaptation of it.
But along with the nostalgia, there was also some new-school irony inherent in taking an absurd, cheapjack B-movie about a talking killer plant and "elevating" it to the stage. Here were real New York actors singing their hearts out in tribute to an obscure flick that had played on the bottom half of double bills on the drive-in circuit. Sort of like serving a Big Mac on a silver platter, if you get my meaning. And thus, I would argue, Ashman and Menken had (inadvertently?) begun the era of sardonic nostalgia.
In their wake would follow a slew of writers, singers, and artists who scavenged through America's dumpsters in hopes of turning yesterday's trash into today's treasure. However much they appreciated the source material, these newbies always began their work, rightly or wrongly, with the assumption that they were a little smarter and a lot less naive than the schmucks whose work they were adapting, remixing, or simply ridiculing. Although rarely articulated, that underlying feeling of superiority was always a given in such endeavors. Were these newbies justified in feeling superior to their elders? Sometimes.
This week, I am focusing my attention on one such nostalgic/sardonic project: a strange, Ed Wood-themed concept album recorded twenty years ago. What was its purpose? Veneration? Degradation? Both? Let's find out.
THE WORST! A NEW MUSICAL (1994)
Alternate titles: The album's full title is The Worst! A New Musical by Josh Alan Based on the Life of Ed Wood, the Worst Director of All Time. Its creator is far better known as Josh Alan Friedman.
Availability: Oh, brother, is this thing available! Name your poison. Compact disc? Download? You got it. Try CD Baby, iTunes, or Amazon. Expect to pay about $9 to $10 for the MP3 version or $13 to $19 for the CD.
|The Friedman boys: writer Josh (left) and artist Drew.|
Yep, Bruce was one of those go-to funnymen of the '70s and '80s, never quite in the same league of stratospheric popularity as Woody Allen or Steve Martin but well-known enough to be mentioned in their company. In fact, Martin starred in the Friedman-derived film The Lonely Guy in 1984, while Allen cast Friedman in his 1988 film Another Woman. All four of Friedman's children -- three from his first marriage, one from his second -- pursued creative careers, and each has acquired some level of success and acclaim. But we are concerned today with Bruce's two oldest sons, musician-writer Josh Alan Friedman (b. 1956) and artist Drew Friedman (b. 1958).
Drew's name is one that should be familiar to anyone who has even halfway followed the comics world over the last few decades. And even if you don't recognize the moniker, it's a cinch you've seen Drew's work adorning movie posters, album covers, and magazine articles. He has an incredibly distinctive style: meticulously detailed and photo-realistic, yet somehow heightened and surreal at the same time. In the early days of his career, Drew had a painstaking pointillist technique, creating his pictures from lots of tiny little dots like the ones that make up photos in a newspaper. He's long since dropped the dots, but his artwork retains its trademark trompe l'oeil, real-yet-unreal appearance.
As a creator of comics, Drew has often displayed a morbid, often tasteless sense of humor along with a keen interest in the weirder, darker aspects of show business history. Originally, his work only appeared in "edgy," provocative publications like RAW, Weirdo, and Heavy Metal. Eventually, though, he started earning mainstream acceptance, and his work has since been collected into a series of widely-available books, including Old Jewish Comedians (Fantagraphics, 2006). He also has a lucrative career as a commercial illustrator, which has brought his work to an incalculably larger audience. Intentionally or not, you've seen Drew Friedman's work.
|Tor as he appeared in the Friedmans' book.|
And following his move to Dallas in 1987, Friedman has earnestly pursued a career in music under the name Josh Alan, performing live in venues large and small, releasing several well-reviewed albums, and collaborating with pretty much everyone in the city's burgeoning "bohemian" scene. Josh also shares his younger brother's interest in "old weird showbiz" and co-wrote some of Drew's pop culture-themed comics. I
t seems inevitable that two boys like the Friedmans would eventually stumble onto the legend of Ed Wood, and stumble they did. One member of Eddie's repertory company, the bald-headed 400-pound Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson, became a particular favorite of Josh and Drew and reappeared in multiple comics created by them in the 1980s. These strips, along with other Friedman comics of the era, were eventually anthologized in a book called Any Similarity to Persons Living or Dead is Purely Coincidental (Fantagraphics, 1985; reprinted 2012).
It is fair to say that Josh Alan and Drew Friedman are two of the more prominent combatants in the decades-long battle over Ed Wood's legacy. In 1994, a few months before Tim Burton's Ed Wood was released nationwide but two years after Rudolph Grey's oral history Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. was published, Josh Alan Friedman released an Ed Wood-themed concept album called The Worst! with cover art by his brother, Drew. Guests on the album included Sara Hickman, Jennifer Griffin, Kim Pendleton, Randy Erwin, and an eccentric musical ensemble called Cafe Noir.
I can find no record of The Worst! ever having been staged as a full-fledged musical with sets and costumes. It exists today, twenty years later, as a half-hour-long album. This promotional blurb is interesting, though, as it suggests the complicity of Ed Wood's estate:
|Drew Friedman's cover art|
Though he's been living in Dallas for some time, and thrown a lock on Best Acoustic Act in the Dallas Observer poll, the slide guitar virtuoso was, in a previous incarnation, Josh Alan Friedman, author of three books, one tellingly entitled Tales of Times Square. . . Of all the albums I've received and reviewed, this, the soundtrack to a musical based on the life and career of Ed Wood, the worst director of all time, immortal creator of such legendary trash as Plan 9 From Outer Space, Jail Bait and Glen or Glenda is the only one that can truly be called epic.
Based round Wood himself, Bela Lugosi, Vampira, Tor Johnson, sundry starlets and strippers and, most significantly, Dreckula, the Jayne Mansfield lookalike Goddess of Crap, who haunts Wood's typewriter, it features Dallas gypsy jazz group Cafe Noir, [Sara Hickman, Phoebe Legere], and a whole slew of others. With music and libretto that draw on the acidic tradition of Rodgers & Hart and Brecht & Weill, the highlight showstopper is the finale title sequence, following Lugosi's death midway through the filming of Plan 9, which includes Danse of the Flying Hubcaps, Cardboard Graveyard Waltz and Wood's actors (for want of a better word), singing "The worst is yet to come." Authorized by Wood's estate, this tour de force is a must for aficionados off the Shakespeare of schlock. . ."
The listening experience: Concise but entertaining enough to warrant a purchase. Though marketed as a "Broadway-style musical," this is a surprisingly humble, nonchalant affair. The Worst! clocks in at a mere 36 minutes, and none of the album's 16 tracks ventures too far past the four-minute mark. The briefest track lasts only 28 seconds.
There is only the vaguest sort of chronological narrative here. The first real song (track #2, "Kodak City Special") does focus on Eddie's childhood, while the last song (track #15, "The Worst!") has the director pondering his legacy. In between, there are loosely interconnected but standalone, self-contained songs devoted to various motifs (e.g. transvestism, low-budget filmmaking) and characters (e.g. Bela Lugosi, Vampira) in Ed Wood's life.
All the prominent male "roles" are portrayed by Josh Alan Friedman himself, who sings in a husky, conversational voice. Friedman makes no attempt whatsoever to imitate the accents or speech cadences of these people. So Ed Wood, Bela Lugosi, Tor Johnson, and Criswell all end up sounding exactly the same.
Musically, although there are brief hints of Broadway bombast on display, The Worst! feels more like a clever concept album by a singer-songwriter than it does an original cast soundtrack. West Side Story this ain't. Friedman's comfort zone seems to be a low-key brand of ambling country-folk, though a few tracks could be described as excursions into swing and cocktail lounge jazz. Fortunately, the album is brief enough that I can discuss each track individually. So that's what I'll do.
1. "Intro" (0:28) A brassy, Broadway-style fanfare punctuated by the clicking and clacking of a typewriter. This positively reeks of old showbiz. You can all but smell the greasepaint and see the Klieg lights.
2. "Kodak City Special" (2:14) Almost immediately, Friedman confounds the listener's expectations with this wistful, acoustic-guitar-based folk tune, which has a mild bossa nova underpinning and a gentle coffeehouse vibe. Not your typical Broadway opener. Lyrically, the song is sung from Ed Wood's point of view. He's just gotten his first movie camera and is already dreaming of being a great director, brandishing a megaphone and outdoing Cecil B. DeMille. This would be roughly 1935, so Eddie would be about 11 years old. In real life, it was Ed's dad who gave him this precious, life-changing gift. But Friedman fiddles with history a bit and has Ed's mother, Lillian Wood, give him the camera instead. This is an understandable switch, since one way to view Ed Wood's life is through the prism of the Oedipus myth. A reference to Orson Welles is a little dubious, however, since Citizen Kane would still have been a few years down the road. Unless little Eddie Wood had been really tuned into the world of theater, it's doubtful he would have known who Welles was at the time.
Sample lyric: (possibly inspired by a famous Crest toothpaste slogan) "Look at me, Ma! I've gotta camera!"
3. "Let Me Die in Angora" (2:27) If you're writing an Ed Wood musical, how long do you go before mentioning his transvestism? For Josh Alan Friedman, the answer was about two songs. "Let Me Die in Angora," its title a takeoff on Ed's 1967 novel Let Me Die in Drag (aka Death of a Transvestite), is an overtly comic, almost Vaudevillian number that plays off the easy irony of a macho, combat-hungry Marine wearing women's underwear beneath his fatigues. The song's rather gimmicky premise is that Ed Wood treats these items of feminine underclothing as if they were human and capable of returning his affection. Very much unlike his real-world counterpart, the Ed Wood in this song has no interest in flesh-and-blood women. All he wants is their unmentionables. Guest vocalist Sara Hickman plays one of his naive would-be paramours, who doesn't quite get what's going on with Ed.
Sample lyric: "I would wine and dine your bra."
4. "Bela Lugosi" (3:09) Clearly one of the album's highlights and its arguable centerpiece, this melancholy number portrays the Hungarian actor as a tragic figure along the lines of Jerry Jeff Walker's "Mr. Bojangles" -- a showbiz lifer who finds himself, at the end of a long career, consigned to the dustbin of history, largely forgotten and struggling with substance abuse issues. While Mr. Bojangles couldn't stay out of the county jail because of his persistent drinking problem, Bela requires morphine in order to play Count Dracula for the umpteenth time. The arrangement is evocative. A trilling, angelic female chorus cooing Bela's name and some sighing strings give this song added poignancy. "Bela Lugosi" is a bummer, but it gives The Worst! some added weight and keeps the album from feeling like a silly novelty.
Sample lyric: "The only part they'll hire me for is to play this old vampire whore evermore."
5. "Trash!" (2:40) Friedman once again changes the entire mood of the album in a heartbeat. "Trash!" is a loud, brash duet between Ed Wood and his typewriter, as portrayed by Jennifer Griffin in the first of her several guest appearances in The Worst! Yes, the typewriter itself has been given a human voice and personality, something like a brassy, sassy, flirtatious cocktail waitress. The typewriter acts as a muse and a siren to Ed as he hammers away it its keyboard, churning out the low-rent sleaze for which he is known. This is quite appropriate, since Eddie spent more time at his writing desk than he ever did behind a camera. The lyrics of the song are not specific about what Ed is writing. Newcomers will assume -- possibly correctly -- that he's typing up screenplays. Diligent Wood-ologists, however, may deduce that "Trash!" is about Eddie's shadowy career as the author of pornographic novels and short stories.
Sample lyric (sung by the typewriter): "Pack me full of cliches, honey! I like men who write real crummy!"
|Cowboy Randy Erwin|
Sample lyric: "Don't ya get the wrong ideer. Guaranteed I ain't no queer."
7. "Exploitation Men" (1:31) Another highlight of The Worst!, this is a 1950s-style a cappella number performed by a male chorus, snapping their fingers and crooning in close harmony. Not truly specific to the Ed Wood story yet still highly applicable to it, this is a song about the unscrupulous, greedy scumbags that one might encounter in the smut racket. These guys are obviously in it for the money, but they take a little devilish glee in corrupting the morals of the public. Their formula for happiness? "Put on a raincoat, lie to your wife." For you younger or more naive listeners, raincoats were frequently worn by the patrons of pornographic movie theaters because these garments allowed them to masturbate in public without exposing themselves. Like "Trash!" just two tracks ago, this song is vague enough that it could be about either filmmaking or publishing. The sentiments apply to either industry.
Sample lyric: "Narcotics sold by Boy Scout troops turn Girl Scouts into prostitutes."
8. "Bad Dreams" (2:30) Though she only appeared in one of his movies, Vampira is forever associated with Ed Wood. So if you're going to write a Wood-based musical, you'll need a token Vampira number in there somewhere. That's what "Bad Dreams" is. The famed '50s TV icon, who potently combined sex and death, is portrayed by Jennifer Griffin. Though not nearly as downbeat as Bela's song, "Bad Dreams" is not exactly celebratory. The once-and-future Ms Maila Nurmi seems blandly resigned to her circumscribed role as a TV seductress whose main job is to give children nightmares by showing them movies like White Zombie. It's just what she does. She doesn't seem to feel one way or the other about it. She's Pennywise the Clown reborn as a dutiful nine-to-fiver.
Sample lyric: "Children of L.A., share with me your nights. See me when you pray."
9. "Strippers Audition" (2:14) Yet another high point of The Worst!, this deceptively upbeat, bouncy composition focuses on one of the seedier aspects of the cruel business we call show. In terms of melody and arrangement, "Strippers Audition" could be an advertising jingle for floor wax or toothpaste. Lyrically, however, it's sung from the perspective of two aspiring starlets (Jennifer Griffin again, plus Kim Pendleton) who wish to appear unclad in one of Ed Wood's sexploitation films and so write him letters of introduction ("Dear Mister Wood...") in which they alternately flatter and criticize their potential boss. The first of these young ladies is nasally and naive, probably a new arrival in Hollywood, fresh off the bus from Peoria or thereabouts. The second has a smoky voice and a cynical outlook. She seems like a gal who's learned some tough lessons. Both want to appear in Eddie's next film, which I'm guessing is Orgy of the Dead. "We wanna star for Ed D. Wood," they chirp. "Make us into monsters! We'll be good!" Ironically, I don't think Eddie had much pull when it came to casting Orgy. These ladies should have sent their 8x10 glossies to Stephen C. Apostolof instead.
Sample lyric: "Your spooks and zombies and your ghouls are mighty queer! So sincere!"
10. "Tor's Theme" (0:49) Another brief instrumental, this one presaging a full-length number that will surface later in the album. "Tor's Theme" is a lurching circus waltz, suggesting that wrestler/actor Tor Johnson's life was a kind of nonstop traveling freak show, with himself as the prize exhibit.
11. "Criswell Predicts" (0:57) And speaking as we were earlier of Orgy of the Dead, here's a song devoted to that film's soothsaying star. Although less than a minute in length, "Criswell Predicts" feels like two songs grafted together. The chorus, performed by a male vocal group similar to that of "Exploitation Men," is a jolly, Mickey Mouse Club-type anthem praising the phony fortune teller unabashedly. ("Criswell predicts! Your incredible future! Nostradamus of the air!") The verses, though, consist of the man himself giving his loony forecasts in rhyme while a slightly foreboding, moody guitar noodles away in the background. Criswell's voice is put through a filter, making it sound as if it originates from an old TV set or radio. Josh Alan Friedman has no real satirical or critical point to make about Criswell, per se, but through the predictions themselves, we get some insight into the preoccupations and prejudices of his mid-Twentieth-Century audience.
Sample lyric: "A Cuban revolution brews in 1958! Sends Desi Arnaz back to be elected chief of state!"
12. "Tor! Tor!" (3:09) You couldn't very well do an Ed Wood musical without giving a few minutes of it over to Tor Johnson, the bald, hulking "Super Swedish Angel" of wrestling fame who had memorably appeared in both Plan 9 from Outer Space and Night of the Ghouls for Eddie in the 1950s. Johnson's eternal fate was to be the very definition of a gentle giant: the soul of a church mouse in the body of a gorilla. Vampira and Criswell had accepted their outlandish public personae with a sense of what-the-hell pragmatism (hey, an actor's gotta eat, right?), but they were lucky enough to be typecast in more glamorous roles than poor Tor, who was forever playing the brainless bruiser or the monosyllabic monster. This song is rather sympathetic to the man's plight. It reminds me a bit of Randy Newman's "Davy the Fat Boy," another song about a plus-sized fellow who finds himself being exhibited like a freak for the public's amusement. Musically, however, it's closer to a sea chanty like "Blow the Man Down." And for some arcane reason, Friedman has chosen to interpolate a bit of the Scottish folk tune, "Did You Ever See a Lassie?"
Sample lyric: "It's hard to be mean/Make everyone scream."
13. "Ed Types Plan 9" (0:37) Another brief instrumental, one that might have served as transitional music during a scene change if this show were ever performed onstage. The only sounds here are some rhythmic, percussive typing and some swooning inhalations in the background. Obsolete though it may now be, the typewriter made a grand noise, didn't it? Artists as diverse as Leroy Anderson ("The Typewriter"), Raymond Scott ("The Girl at the Typewriter"), and Dolly Parton ("9 to 5") have taken advantage of the device's percussive possibilities. Shame to think we're losing that.
14. "Bela's Funeral Dirge" (2:37) A mostly-instrumental composition that builds off the melody from track #4 to lovely, elegiac effect. A chorus of angels coos the actor's name, but those are the only lyrics here. The arrangement subtly suggests either traditional Hungarian music or the folk songs of European gypsies. Bela Lugosi, let's not forget, memorably portrayed a gypsy (named Bela!) in 1941's The Wolf Man for Universal. Although the makers of The Worst! are quick to point out that their album precedes Tim Burton's biopic Ed Wood, it's worth noting that Bela receives a similar musical treatment from Howard Shore, who composed the score for Burton's film. Shore, like Josh Alan Friedman, creates special themes and motifs for Lugosi, ones with a certain "old country" flavor to them. Unlike Friedman, however, Shore explicitly quotes from Swan Lake to make the Dracula association unmistakable.
15. "The Worst!" (4:05) The album's title track is also its longest and the last one to have any lyrics, so if there were ever a time for Josh Alan Friedman to make his thesis statement for this project, it's now. Did Friedman come here to bury Ed Wood or to praise him? It's a cop-out, but I'll have to say "both" and "neither." The song's lyrics can be simultaneously brutal and forgiving, referring to Ed Wood as "la crème de movie scum," a backhanded compliment that is reminiscent of something John Candy said about Eddie in It Came from Hollywood. "Ed Wood," declared Candy, "stands alone at the foot of the heap." Eddie was no damned good, Candy and Friedman are apparently telling us, but at least he was the best at being the worst.
The rest of the song's lyrics give us some fun factoids about Eddie's life, with a few urban legends sprinkled over the top like jimmies on a sundae. This song covers much of the same ground as Tim Burton's nearly-contemporaneous movie: the colorblind cameraman, the critic who didn't show up to review Ed's play, the church that financed Plan 9 but only if Ed and his cast would be baptized first, etc. And there are some fibs here, too, like the references to Eddie using hubcaps as flying saucers and "raid[ing] Paramount's dumpsters" for props. Neither of those stories are true, appealing as they may be.
Curiously, Eddie's rampant, decades-long alcoholism is never brought up. Not here. Not anywhere on the album. Overall, "The Worst!" is a surprisingly pretty and poignant little folk song, presenting Eddie as a B-movie Ozymandias who brags to one of his actresses (played by avant garde musician Phoebe Legere): "Trust in me, I'll give you immortality!" The most interesting musical touch is a clarinet solo that briefly lends a klezmer-like feel to the piece, the only hint of Friedman's Jewish heritage on this entire album.
Sample lyric: "I'm no technician! Direction is the art of a mortician!"
16. "Overture (Elevator Mix)" (4:03) Although it's the second-longest track on The Worst!, this album-closing instrumental feels like a bit of an afterthought. It's just a medley of prominent themes from the show. I counted "Kodak City Special," "Bela Lugosi," "Tor! Tor!," "Strippers Audition," "The Worst!" and "Trash!" Only "Kodak" is arranged to sound like elevator music, though. I was sort of hoping Friedman would carry that conceit through the track. He didn't. Still, it's a nice little capper to the album, especially since track #15 ends very suddenly with no real sense of finality.
Josh Alan Friedman's The Worst! is the kind of album I would never, ever have discovered if I hadn't gone digging through the flotsam and jetsam of Ed Wood's career, hunting for new discoveries and fresh input. In the preparation of this article, I've probably listened to it in its entirety about a dozen times, until the words and music became second-nature to me. I'm still not sure whether or not I "love" it (whatever that verb means), but I don't regret having purchased it, and I'm glad to know that it's sitting there in my iTunes library whenever I choose to summon it.
With a squeaky-clean conscience, I can recommend it to the curious and the semi-curious alike. That's more than I can say for many (most?) of the movies in this series. Unlike those low-budget flicks, there is no hint of amateur-hour sloppiness to The Worst! On the contrary, this album boasts high production values and excellent sound quality. This is no homemade demo by overzealous fans. It's clearly the product of people who know what the hell they're doing. Maybe that's why my feelings toward it are admiration and appreciation rather than affection. There's something a little too slick about The Worst! It's fun, but it never quite pierces the skin.
Next: Folks, I don't know how much I should tell you about the next installment in this series other than to say that it's an experiment that will more than likely fail. It's self-indulgent, certainly, but if one cannot indulge one's self, than whom can one indulge? You might think that I'm being deliberately vague and unhelpful. I apologize for that, but I don't want to scare you away. Let's just say the next article is more for me than it is for you, but you're still invited to read it anyway. How about that? If that sounds fair to you, then make your way back here in two short weeks for The Secret Testimony of Miserable Souls.