White House (Taken with Instagram at The White House)
Anybody want to go to this wonderful exhibit?
The Secrets of the Deep Exhibition
THE LOST, FORGOTTEN AND HIDDEN WORKS OF THEODOR SEUSS GEISEL
In celebration of the newly published volume comprising the most comprehensive survey of Dr. Seuss’s nearly seventy-year artistic legacy, we proudly announce an expanded and reoriganized look at Dr. Seuss’s extraordinary artistic legacy.
Special Presentation by Bill Dreyer, Curator of Dr. Seuss’s Artworks.
Saturday, Dec. 3, 6-9pm in our Georgetown Gallery, 202-965-3833
Exhibition thru Dec. 24.
When the going gets tough and the stomach acids flow
The cold wind of conformity is nipping at your nose
When some trendy new atrocity has brought you to your knees
Come with us we’ll sail the Seas of Cheese!
As the world inched toward the end of the century with my adolescence in full bloom, I found myself oddly comforted by these opening lyrics to Sailing the Seas of Cheese by Primus. My body was weird, my parents were weird, my peers were weird; heck, the whole world was weird. Somehow the sonic voyage contained within this surreal album was less weird. I quickly accepted the invitation, hopped on board, and navigated the next few years of life with Primus as my guide.
I can’t quite remember whom I have to thank for turning me on to this three-piece punk-metal-funk rock outfit from the Bay Area. What I can be sure about is that it was shortly after I purchased my first electric bass. As any aspiring musician is ought to do I immediately began searching for gurus. It was either my jazz/classical band teacher Mr. Collins or my friend and personal bass guru Shige*(note below) that pointed me towards Les Claypool, the inimitable bassist cum vocalist of the band. Being the pre-Wikipedia and e-commerce days, I perused the Primus collection at Tower Records in Tokyo and bought what I thought to be their debut album (it wasn’t; that honor goes to their delicious live album “Suck On This”).
Not coincidentally, ‘inimitable’ also parsimoniously captures popular reaction to Primus. Popping Seas of Cheese into my CD Walkman, my first reaction was simply a Cheshire Cat smile. Backed by a bowed bass and noises that evoke a ship ready to set sail on a misty morning Les’ vocals, uniquely nasal and wobbly, presage the shenanigans in store for the crew and this fortunate passenger. As we leave port, the rest of the crew introduces themselves with the track “Here Come the Bastards”.
In stiff contrast to the self-deprecating title and general levity of Les’ quasi-sensical lyrics the band churns out a slow and heavy groove, the likes of which I had never come across prior. Rather than pick one note at a time, Les strums the bass in chords à la rhythm guitar while thumping bass notes with his thumb in between strums. That is to say, it was like he was playing two instruments at the same time; a feat I had not thought possible and desperately wished to master ASAP. This virtuoso performance is solidly backed by two virtuosos in their own right: Tim Alexander on drums and Larry Lalonde on guitar. Tim, affectionately called ‘Herb’ due to him being vegetarian, mostly lays down a sparse but deep groove, leaving plenty of space for Les’ bass lines to shine and lyrics to cut through, while delivering thundering tom rolls and kick drum beats when space allows or certain phrases demand emphasis. As his kit consists of double the number of toms than most others, the rolls are melodic as well as rhythmic; yet another revelation to me at the time. And then there’s Larry, a.k.a. ‘Ler’. Like Herb, Ler gives Les space and shreds whenever there is an opportunity. However while Herb’s drumming tends towards the jazzy side of the spectrum Ler’s guitar playing is way on the other end, bringing some serious metal to the table with a dash of psychedelia. By the end of the track I already had a taste of the fondue being served aboard H.M.S. Primus and I wanted more.
Newly a bassist, already a multiinstrumentalist, and being naïve my appreciation for Primus at this point in my life didn’t extend beyond their instrumental prowess and the overall quirky, psychedelic, and irreverent feel they exuded through their songs and personas. Beyond the opening lyrics and the occasionally witty lines here and there, most of what Les had to say escaped me or simply was not of interest. This was to be a musical voyage and I was still in the midst of a passage. Fortunately Sailing the Seas of Cheese, not to mention the rest of the Primus catalogue I quickly began accumulating, was a treasure trove of virtuosity that could more than sustain the interest of this aspiring rocker for a long crossing.
I first gravitated towards the two singles “Tommy the Cat” and “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver”. They offer some of Les’ catchiest licks to date, laid over some serious drive by Herb and accented perfectly with gnarly solos from Ler. Both of them introduced me to new ways to make sounds with my bass; with “Tommy” came slapping and thumb-picking while “Jerry” taught me tapping. I was in no way talented enough to even come close to reproducing Les but he gave me something to strive towards while I became proficient in the works of Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Tim Commerford (Rage Against the Machine), and other bassists with simpler bass lines. More importantly, these songs ROCK HARD; hard in a way that doesn’t seem possible for a three-piece band. There isn’t any noticeable overdubbing aside from the vocals yet your ears are filled with a mighty wave undulating as the bass kicks in, then moves back to allow for a guitar solo, vocal verses, and pounding beats.
I also took a fancy to the other tracks, especially the ones that were easy enough for me to learn. But with repeated listens, not being a teen anymore, and having experienced more of the real world I began to pay attention to what the album was expressing literally, not just acoustically. That is, the lyrics began making sense. Within the context of their oeuvre, the album made more sense. What was a crossing became a voyage.
Les clearly has a nautical obsession. But unlike his other works Les employs the sea as a conceptual anchor in Seas of Cheese. It’s a metaphor for the USA as seen through his eyes, a sea filled with false promises, drug use, and scars from wars. It’s seedy and far from the place we had come to understand through official discourse and popular media.
In “American Life” the absurdity of the American Dream is presented through a series of chronological vignettes through the 20th century. First, a Sicilian mother is drawn to American shores and its promise of riches. ”For the boy we American Life,” she thinks, staring up at the Statue of Liberty on a cold day on Ellis Isle. Skip forward to the Vietnam era and a we find a Laotian refugee stuck in a cycle of minimum wage jobs who turns to pot and prostitutes to ease his lament yet unshaken in his belief of the American Dream. ”For the boy we have American Life,” he thinks. By the time we get to the post-Vietnam years, the Dream is clearly shattered as a veteran is reduced to homelessness, scrounging the streets for recyclables. ”He was born into American Life,” Les proclaims, making his case that there is no “promise” of prosperity in this country; life can get ugly here just like anywhere else.
In other tracks, Les exposes you to meth-abusing union repairmen (“Those Dammed Blue-Collar Tweekers”), speed-loving racers and firemen (“Jerry Was a Race Car Driver”), and sex-addicted predators and temptresses (“Tommy the Cat”). We’re also presented with the authoritarian, militaristic drive of the country in the form of “Sgt. Baker”. It’s fortunate that these songs are presented through whimsical third-person narrative and vocal delivery, accompanied by purely comical, first-person faire like “Grandad’s Little Ditty” and “Here Come the Bastards”. By demarcating these songs so, Les creates a barrier for himself and the listener that allows for critical examination of an otherwise depressing state of affairs.
Given such subject matter and singular musical delivery, it’s shocking that this album went platinum; doubly so now, as such sales are increasingly out of the grasp of even major pop acts. But placing myself back into the eccentricity of the 90’s it starts to make sense: It was the era of grunge and the alt-rock nation; It was the post-Cold War and Gulf War years; It was a time of booming commerce and promises of riches were aplenty. It was a schizophrenic decade in which popular discontent amongst the young butted heads with the veneer of prosperity upheld by the old. In its own way, Seas of Cheese captured this zeitgeist eloquently. Being sympathetic towards the younger, financially promiscuous side of the cultural battle, not to mention having the aid of a music industry still in its golden years, it’s less surprising that Primus was able to capture the ears, hearts, and minds of so many people, including myself.
Living through those times and these more plainly ominous times, I am grateful for having Primus along for the ride. Sailing the Seas of Cheese kicked off a remarkable decade for rock music and captured this aspiring musician and confused youth along the way. It’s sage, irreverent, fun, and sonically spectacular. It’s an album that can now be appreciated as an historical artefact while offering a surrealist respite from the depressing history that is currently unfolding. If any of these qualities resonate with you, please do hop on board - it’s a voyage worth taking.
Some albums grow on you. Some albums you growth with. ~ Shintaro Doi
Listen to Sailing the Seas of Cheese on Spotify
Notes, trivia, stray observations:
* Regardless of who it was I am very much in debt to the both of them for guiding me down numerous musical avenues. As such, I hope to repay this debt by having them suffer multiple mentions in future entries to my puny little corner of the Web.
- Primus has just release their first new album in 12 years, titled Green Naugahyde. It’s a catchy sonofabitch that harkens back to the days of their first studio album Frizzle Fry.
- Primus also is touring to support their release. They will be stopping by my neighborhood on September 24th. Tickets are sold out, but show information can be had here. Scalp if you have to as their live shows are on the level of, if not surpassing, Phish in their jammy, funkadelikness.
- I was fortunate enough to cover their DC show at the DAR Constitution Hall on March 13, 2004 on behalf of the Georgetown Hoya. It was their reunion tour after a long hiatus and the first time Herb rejoined the band after leaving it in 1996. Aptly titled “Tour de Fromage”, they played a short set of assorted tunes, followed by a full rendition of Seas of Cheese. If you are able to hunt down a recording of the show (they made all shows on this and a subsequent tour available online) then you can hear me shout, “Ler, you suck!!!” in the intro of “Sgt. Baker”. Far from an insult, “Primus sucks!” has been a popular chant at Primus shows since their Suck On This days when Les used to introduce the band by saying, “Hello. We are Primus and we suck.”
Some albums grow on you. Some albums you growth with. I’ve always wanted to share such works with my friends and the world at large and am finally getting around to doing it. In this series I will be showcasing some albums that not only are masterpieces but also have significantly impacted my growth as a musician, musical enthusiast, and person. I will also attempt to place these albums in a larger context than my life since they usually have something to say about the world from which they came. As such, the posts will be an amalgam of critique and memoir - something more along the lines of an essay than a pro forma album review.
I hope these entries can serve as food for thought, a door into my mind, a guide for your next musical purchase, or simply a momentary distraction from the daily grind. Whatever the reason, I will try my best to bring to light some albums, often obscure, that you may have yet to come across or offer a different perspective of those you already cherish (or may hate). If you are moved in any way by a post, please take a moment to comment; I very much enjoy discussion and it will be honor to have one with you. I have no clue where these explorations will lead to but they will hopefully be fun and occasionally illuminating. Hope you can join me.