Song Of The Day 3/3/2017: Queen – “Teo Torriatte (Let Us Cling Together)”
The Final 27
How Legends Are FabricatedI met Rick through Eve. They worked for the same legal office for a while. We had a lot of the same musical interests. He knew I was a fan of Alex Chilton. I think Rick was the first person to clue me in about Big Star, who will be coming up here in a couple of days. He had a firebrand sense of humor and a real flair for the off-beat. “Off-beat” is kind of a tame hyphenate for what it was, but if I tried to describe it in full I’d be here for hours.
I told Rick that I played piano. He owned a few guitars, and he suggested it would be great if we could get together and have a jam session at some point.
Allow me to explain why I said Rick “owned a few guitars” rather than “played guitar.”
When I ask someone what instrument they play, and they tell me they play guitar, I’m usually safe in making a few assumptions. Not always but usually. The first assumption is that they have some rudimentary facility with chords. If I ask them to play an A-D-E progression, they know what I’m talking about and comply. Their expertise may not go beyond strumming some chords, but when asked to do so they usually can. Using that definition, I play guitar, although I haven’t done so onstage in about 14 years.
Some guitar players, as I’m sure you’re aware, go beyond strumming chords and can really wail. Their solos may be avant-garde, or jazzy, or experimental, but if you listen to the notes they play they all fit some melodic scheme. Even the notes that sound “off” sound like they belong there.
Of course, even with that flair with lead lines, some guitarists may go completely off the track and enjoy filling the air with atonal noise and confusion. Kurt Cobain springs to mind. But again, if you asked Kurt to play a solo and he was in the mood to indulge you, most likely what you’d hear would fit some preordered schemata in your head, organized after years of conditioning you’d received from the radio and what-not.
Now, back to Rick. He came over for our first jam session, with me on piano and my friend Jeff on bass. Jeff was a fantastic bassist, one of the best I’ve ever played with. Rick brought a couple of guitars over. He and I shared an amp. I had a 4-track Tascam recorder and a drum machine, so I hit the record button and we all started playing a 12-bar blues figure.
Jeff and I settled in the way we usually did. No real surprises, a couple of nice runs by Jeff. Rick, on the other hand, hit his first note completely out of tune and stayed there. His notes were utterly divorced from what Jeff and I were setting up melodically. Sensing what was going on, I started a gruff vocal that had no words. I turned it around a bit by hitting my delay pedal and creating some echo. Jeff, who had also figured out what was going on, did what he could. Rick kept going with the atonal freak show and never let up. It was a barrage of unformed skronks, noise and fret-scrapes.
Let's just say it was obvious Rick was self-taught.
We put down two songs that day, the blues number and another song of indeterminate origin. I didn’t know quite what was going on, but when Rick casually said we should get together again a couple of weeks later, I agreed, with some small measure of hesitation.
Jeff was non-committal, and never showed up again.
Rick and I, on the other hand, continued to play together for the next three years.
The Singles EraIn between our first and second sessions Rick and I came up with the name “L. Ron Shrubbery.” This was a quickly developed name we got by rashly matching Scientology with a reference to “The Knights Who Say Ni” from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. We didn’t spend a lot of time on the name. We had a full agenda already. Screw the name.
The second time Rick and I got together we did a rap song. It was written around the hook “L. Ron Shrubbery’s going to clip your hedges.” Not much of a hook but I wasn’t nearly the hip hop prodigy you’d think I was. Rick had introduced me to Ice-T. We did a parody version of his song “The Girl Tried to Kill Me” about my cat Spike, who had recently bitten my hand.
Rick was entirely into it. I was too, but on a different level. There was such a—not “gap,” so much as…—let’s say “stark juxtaposition between performance philosophies.” But our aims coalesced at some point. We just went with the simple aim of getting together once every month or so, bang out some improvised tunes, put the whole thing on tape, and contextualize it later.
We made an album every month or so, is what I’m trying to say.
Both of us began writing lyrics. This is something I should have ingested a bit more respectfully. When I wrote lyrics for my own songs, they were stilted, sometimes mawkish, occasionally flat-out awkward.
But when I wrote lyrics for LRS I was free to be as unstructured and crazy as I wanted. It didn’t matter if the words were stilted, or if some combinations seemed awkward, because the whole thing was built on the war between Rick’s randomness and my pop classicism. There was really no wrong way to do it because we were doing everything wrong. Doing things wrong was our calling card. Once we (well, I) accepted our wrongness, we felt that we could do anything the hell we wanted.
So naturally we began to conceptualize things a little bit.
Our first album was The Kahlua Queen Suite. This was a concept album about a woman who had ruined my keyboard by spilling alcohol all over the top row of keys. Rick was her friend and he was more pissed off about it than I was, but I channeled some of my unformed anger at the time through the songs. Rick and I were both going through breakups at the time, so there was a lot of hungover self-flagellation and rage happening.
I bought a really cheap Hohner keyboard—like, $50—to serve as a replacement while my digital grand piano was in the shop. The Hohner’s all over the first half of the suite, especially the title track. We had my piano back to record the second half of the album, and honestly it contains some of the better piano playing I ever did, especially on Rick’s song You’re a Looney Tune.
(As an aside, the story of what happened with the real-life Kahlua Queen went pretty dark. Very dark. It’s not easy for me to discuss.
(There was, despite our id-based execution, a lot of darkness in the L. Ron Shrubbery story.)
One of our other good early songs was Screwed By Love. It was weird mix between, say, Alan Vega and early ‘70s Beach Boys. Although I didn’t know who Alan Vega was at the time. The chorus went “Everybody say/Everybody say/Hello L.A./Hello L.A.” The piano figures were good. I remade it on my own a few years later under the name Duck Drake.
One day Rick announced that he’d purchased some distortion and wah-wah pedals. That opened up our vistas considerably.
He actually first used the distortion pedal on the title track of The Kahlua Queen Suite, but his later efforts really took advantage of the studio space (my studio apartment on Chenery Street) and the many tools we had to enhance our creativity (Guinness Stout). And again, with the full knowledge that we were doing it wrong, we knew we could do anything. Rick was in another zone, I was fueled by sleepiness and regret, and drum machines don’t complain.
Some of our other big early hits were:
- Without You. Not the Badfinger/Nilsson hit, but a Barry White knock-off about a paranoid single man.
- Introspection or Bust. Recorded during the time we didn’t have a piano to work with. I played what guitar I could. This was a Lou Reed inspired number about going inside to learn more about yourself. Lyric: “I’m gonna go inside myself now/… Ew, what a dump.”
- Heavy Metal Musicians Who Shove Cucumbers Down Their Pants to Give the Illusion of Virility When It Could Barely Poke a Hole Through a Piece of Reynolds Wrap. “Cucumber Pants” for short. Hair metal/power ballad parody.
The Economy AlbumAll of the recordings over our first few months were longish. If something’s feeling that good it’s hard to find a jump-off point. But we realized that we needed to come up with a radio hit. We had to think about gunning for airplay. And to do that, we needed some tight pop songs. So we did something called The Economy Album. Everything was five minutes or less, rather than the 7- to 10-minute epics we normally did. It was a nice effort, but keeping things concise wasn’t really in our wheelhouse.
The best song from The Economy Album was Naked Without My Machine Gun, which was a direct quote from an friend of mine who’d just gotten out of the military. We fashioned it into a fast-paced rock blowout about the (apparently temporary) end of the Cold War.
K-Tel HellK-Tel Hell was an obvious direction for us to go: Cover versions. We did three volumes of K-Tel Hell. It’s the spiritual forerunner of Cocktail Hell, the live show I did in Olympia over a decade later. Since I could copy the songs pretty adequately and Rick could do his wild thing, we covered a lot of ground.
My friend Chris was one of the very few outsiders that sat in on L. Ron Shrubbery sessions, and he was a big part of the second and third volumes of K-Tell Hell. I think he did mainly vocal work and was generally there to inspire us to do our best.
The hits just kept on coming:
- Run Joey Run. This is one Chris brought to us, a teen death track from the early ‘70s.
- All By Myself. Rick handled the vocals on this one. He dispensed with the original lyrics entirely, except for the chorus. Chris and I wailed plaintively in the background.
- Seasons in the Sun. A stone-cold goth cover of the terminal-illness classic.
- Abacab. I had the sheet music.
When people ask me, and they practically line up around the block to do so, what L. Ron Shrubbery’s high-water mark was, I cite two very different works. This one came first. It came from two weeks of utter lousiness. The Saturday night before we started this work was terrible. I was barely in the mood in see Rick, which I almost always wanted to do, much less play music on a Sunday afternoon.
L. Ron Shrubbery Applies for a Gun License
Gun License turned out to be one of our more coherent works. No lyrics were written down. Everything came up as we played it. A lot of the vocals were just guttural screams and moans. If I had to choose something to compare it to, I’d probably go with Big Star’s 3rd/Sister Lovers, or maybe Lou Reed’s Berlin with Bob Ezrin sleeping on the console.
It opened up with our strongest one-two punch ever: Inconvenience and Shut Up and Leave Me Alone. The former was built on a broken drum pattern that built steadily. The latter was a 4/4 blues freakout with a jungle drum breaks that only a drum machine could provide. It’s our best primal scream number, and we did lots of primal scream numbers. If you ever come across this tape at flea markets, snatch it up immediately. Highlights:
- Brand New Day (Feel Like Shit). Disco.
- Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word. A cover of the Elton John ballad done to the beat of “We Will Rock You.”
- Trapped in My Body. Kind of a mash between the themes from Superfly and Mission: Impossible.
- We’re Only Trying to Help. Another disco song, just slower.
- Buy This Pizza Now. This was just Rick free-styling some vocals over “Inconvenience” played backwards. I’m surprised we didn’t do more of this.
- The Album’s Message. Basically just some distant recording of the Bulls-Lakers NBA finals from my TV. Album over.
Sturmund Drunk was our rock opera. If by this point you thought that LRS would not do a rock opera, society hasn’t done its job. This is probably LRS’ most-cited masterpiece, although if you ask me Gun License was the stronger overall work. I always preferred The Who Sell Out to Tommy. But Sturmund Drunk was pretty outstanding too.
Rick and I shared lyric writing duties equally—usually he had more of a George Harrison level of contribution to our albums. But on this he wrote fully half of the lyrics. Our strategy was to come up with the song titles first, then write the story into them.
We aimed to make fun of rock operas, of course. We extended the canvas a bit to include concept albums in general. By the end of Sturmund Drunk’s three-hour running we had managed parodies of Tom Waits, Pink Floyd, Aerosmith, Broadway musicals, gospel music, ZZ Top, Emerson Lake & Palmer, and a bunch of things we probably couldn’t typify but went after anyway.
Plot? Yeah, there’s a plot there somewhere. It’s your basic Tommy story about a derelict, the titular character, who’s saved from disgrace by a rich manufacturer who puts him to work in construction. The derelict gets a girlfriend and invents a fail-safe lubricant that makes him rich. He gets in cahoots with the Mafia, who try to shake him down. Sturmund arrogantly blames his girlfriend, who gets killed. His boss realizes he’s gone too far and sends Sturmund to electro-shock therapy, and after that’s done Sturmund is deposited in the same dive bar where the story began, and the cycle begins again.
In between we look lots of side paths with songs that don’t further the plot one whit.
Really, it’s just a three-hour joy buzzer. Here are some of the highlights.
- Baby’s Back from New York. “They used me as a coffee table/That fondue pot really burns/They didn’t even use coasters.”
- Cybill Shepard’s Love Slave. This is one of the greatest LRS songs in history. Rick wrote the words.“Cybill, Cybill/Refuses to make love to me normally/Every time we go to premieres I have to wear a Bob Mackie evening gown.”
- Andrew Lloyd Webber Pumps My Nads. “Feel the strings sailing through my skin pores/Feel the horns blowing on my snake/I’m a singing, dancing cat in stupid makeup/I’m that superstar they’re nailin’ to the stake.”
- Love Spouts. “Of all the joys on God’s green earth/Nothing compares to this fair girth/You get a bucket’s worth.”
- Now the Scepter is Under My Arm. “I wanted muscles like Dolph Lundgren/I looked more like Todd Rundgren/But now the scepter is under my arm.”
- Runaway Corvair. A lyric Rick came up with that I sang. He imagined it as a rockabilly song but I turned it into a ballad.
- The Pig Suite. Featuring “Oink!” and “Have Some Bacon.”
- Dreamin’ on 70 Volts. The electro-shock number. Basically I just sang and groaned through a flanger.
- I Was the Messiah (Now I’m Just a Mess). Self-explanatory.
This was The Economy Album on steroids: 90 songs in 90 minutes. 89 originals and a cover of the Ramones’ Beat on the Brat. I wrote all the words to the originals, very quickly.
McMusic was kind of a mess, but again, the real joy was in the process, wasn’t it? My favorite tracks were She’s So Overt, I’m a Machine and the anti-police brutality Bull Connor’s Hoses (Are Now Batons).
There was also The Point of This Song Is Make It Take Longer to Read the Title Than It Takes to Actually Hear the Song. The complete lyrics were “Did it work? Did it work? Did it work?”
The Selfish IngratesThe only other person who dared to sit in on LRS sessions was Stephanie, who I was playing with in another band. She was a great guitarist and bassist as well. We formed an off-shoot group called The Selfish Ingrates, a parody punk band with bad fake British accents. We made what we called an “EP” called Thinking of You. Rick and Stephanie played guitars, I handled the drum machine and played bass. It’s the only time I ever played bass anywhere. Our big hit was Thank You For Letting Me Borrow Your Wife.
De-BossedProbably our last conceptual work was this album about the life and career of Bruce Springsteen. (I am a Bruce fan, Rick was not.) Most of the songs were originals that closely aped other Bruce songs: Mamie Raised an Ike, Tunnel of Dumb Models, and Yucky Town were the highlights. In between Rick did a version of I’m on Fire with his own lyrics, and we did a straight cover of Jungleland with a CD of animal sound effects playing during the instrumental break. It was hysterical.
Our Last RecordI don’t remember what we called the final L. Ron Shrubbery session, but it was something sarcastic and ironic. It might have been The Screen Door Sessions (as in “don’t let it hit you on the way out”). There weren’t a lot of memorable tunes on this one though. We’d played ourselves out. I know the first song was called This Is Radio Shrub, and the final song we ever recorded was a cover of Queen’s Teo Torriatte (Let Us Cling Together), which had some Japanese lyrics we purposely screwed up.
Then we were done and I was off to Seattle.
That last session was the last time I spoke to Rick. It’s been almost a quarter-century. For a long time I couldn’t find him anywhere. He was a total ghost on the internet. We didn’t have many mutual friends who I’m still in contact with to this day—Eve and Chris are about it—so I didn’t know of anyone who could tell me where he was.
Last night when I researched this piece I finally found an online reference to him. I knew it was him because it referred to his full name. (Rick’s middle name is not a common one.) I got there by searching for the name of Rick’s son, who was a pre-schooler when I first met Rick.
The online article I found was an obituary for Rick’s dad, who passed away last summer. The obit said that the man who died was “survived by” Rick, so at least as lately as the summer of 2016, Rick was still there somewhere.
But the terrible news was that the man was “preceded” in death by his grandson—Rick’s child.
I looked around and came upon an article which referenced the circumstances of his death, and they were horrible and sad. I can’t bring myself to talk about them specifically here. Think of your idea of a parent’s worst nightmare. Chances are one of the scenarios you imagine is what happened.
I was thinking of Rick and his son all day yesterday. After twenty-five years with no contact, and at least a couple of years since his son’s death.
I don’t know how to bring closure to that, except I spent a little bit of time tonight asking my five-year-old a few more questions than I normally do about his day.
John was a little taken aback but he answered.