Squirrel Nut Zippers

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Le temps détruit tout; time destroys all things. People, corporations, empires; everything eventually must yield to the Great Abyss. Immortality only exists within the perception of us mortals, meaning, there is no immortality for anything but mountains and tardigrades. We all die, alone and afraid.

Music is a celebration of the immediate present. Musicians agitate the air molecules and create “living” sound. Live audiences receive these vibrations, and are stimulated. This is why recordings seldom deliver the experience that live performances do, and why some dudes have to blast their music loud enough to drive everyone in earshot insane.

The two stores depicted in the above strip, Media Play and Borders Books, are dead and gone. Borders was still in business when I wrote the strip. I don’t think I contributed to their demise; in fact, I was a regular customer of their CD department, thanks to their extensive selection of Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis (and living across the street at the time). But you have to understand the motivation for my vomitous disgust in the punch panel. (Also, it’s 2016, and the kindly elderly couple has to be waaaaaaaay dead.)

Jewel Kilcher is an American singer/songwriter and guitarist who recorded the hit album Pieces Of You in 1995. At that time, she was extremely “girlfriend-y”. She was cute, she had a funny tooth, and when she sang “You Were Meant For Me”, she was extremely hard to resist. A lyric soprano, she had an advantage over other girl-rockers like Tracy Bonham and Jill Sobule, in that she could really sing.

So of course, the Trend Monster (credit goes to Rev. Ivan Stang) kicked into full gear, and swallowed her up. Fame chipped away at her veneer gradually, at first by indulging her, in allowing a book of her poems to see print. A Night Without Armor finally gave a voice to pretty girls with prominent breasts, at long last.

The past thirteen years have seen Jewel made glossier and vaguer, all thanks to the Trend Monster. There’s no disputing that she looks beautiful, although I guarantee she is commonly mistaken for actress Jennifer Lawrence.

Jewel in 2009 (Yahoo News)

Jewel in 2009 (Yahoo News)

This is de rigueur for women in music. If a female recording artist is the least bit sexual, her marketers go into overkill. The money is just too easy. Plus, women in music tend to be outgoing personalities who know how to “sell themselves”. Quick- what are the first two things that spring to mind when I say the name “Dolly Parton”?

It ain't "Jolene" and "Harper Valley PTA". Unless those are the names of her tits.

It ain’t “Jolene” and “Harper Valley PTA”. Unless those are the names of her tits.

Dolly Parton is one of the few women in music to tussle with the Trend Monster and survive. She used her boobs like battering rams to break down barriers within the industry. If you think she’s exploiting herself, she could give a shit. She’s like the honey badger of the Grand Ole Opry, and she’s given at least three generations of men coronary-inducing boners. All this while being a nice old married lady. That’s a Woman with a capital W.

The Squirrel Nut Zippers had a female vocalist named Katherine Whalen, and after the worldwide success of their single “Hell”, the Trend Monster set its evil eye on her too. The fact that the Zippers were a gang of pals and spouses, and this camaraderie showed in their music, only made the Trend Monster grow hungrier. Humans understand that kind of love, after all. It’s why they turn to music that’s reminiscent of the past.

The band was founded by James “Jimbo” Mathus, formerly of Metal Flake Mother and Johnny Vomit & The Dry Heaves, and his then-wife Katharine Whalen in Carrboro, North Carolina along with Tom Maxwell, Chris Phillips, Don Raleigh and Ken Mosher. The group made its debut in Chapel Hill a few months later. Stacy Guess (formerly of Pressure Boys) joined shortly after. [Wikipedia]

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Both Mathus and Whalen possess dazzling abilities of a bygone musical age. I’ve never heard anyone else sing like Katharine Whalen; she sounds like voices meant for Fleischer cartoons circa 1931. Mathus was born in the Mississippi Delta, and could play mandolin by age 8. In concert, they weaved an antique-blues web that could snare the surly likes of Robert Crumb. They could be corny on occasion, but doesn’t that add to the authenticity?

Listen to Mathus’ vocals and guitar on “St. Louis Cemetery Blues”, and see if you can convince yourself it’s from the 1990s:

I mentioned “The Kraken” in the strip, and again, it astonishes me that this was performed by contemporary musicians. “Verve” is a term people once used to describe that witty swing, that extra oomph that a great jazz band could provide. “The Kraken” has that in spades, and Whalen’s vocal is nothing short of otherworldly. It’s like they dream in Georges Méliès films.

That’s musical gooseflesh.

The Zippers came close to the craftsmanship of The Beau Hunks, a Dutch revivalist music ensemble that reanimated classic themes by LeRoy Shield (Laurel & Hardy, Little Rascals) and Raymond Scott (“Powerhouse”). The Beau Hunks utilize instruments and recording techniques from the 1930s, which I believe the Zippers did also. If you want a positive example of passion in music, have a look at this excerpt from the Beau Hunks’ Wikipedia page:

The Roach film music, composed mostly by Leroy Shield (without screen credit), with additional songs and cues by T. Marvin Hatley, was publicly familiar, but had never been commercially released, and the original recordings and scores were presumed lost. In the mid-1980s, Piet Schreuders, a Dutch graphic designer and radio programmer, began assembling a tape library of Hal Roach comedy themes transferred directly from the soundtrack of VHS tapes. Because the films contain dialogue and sound effects which occasionally obscure the music, Schreuders isolated fragments of themes without dialogue or sound effects and edited them into complete, uninterrupted versions. Using these reconstructed recordings, Schreuders worked closely with transcribers and arrangers Peter Stöve, Jan Robijns, Robert Veen, and Menno Daams to perfect written charts to accurately reflect the music heard in the films. Recreations of these themes had been attempted by others, including Robert Crumb and his Cheap Suit Serenaders (1970s), Ronnie Hazlehurst (1980s), and Vince Giordano (1990s). The Beau Hunks, however, finally gave the stock music of Shield its due in a series of albums released between 1992 and 2000. The most popular of the releases was The Beau Hunks Play the Little Rascals Music (1995).

Ruminate on that a moment. Those people realized how great this dead guy’s music was, and went to great lengths to recreate it properly. I own their recreations, and I can confirm, they are perfection. Behold: pure verve, from the 1990s.

The Squirrel Nut Zippers tapped the same nostalgic vein. They were pure musical love. So of course the Trend Monster had to step in and ruin. The first attack was a typical one; forcing categorization onto a unique band. There’s only one reason for this: marketing. When a band fits into a category, they can be “packaged” with other bands, and sold. Sometimes the Zippers were lumped with swing revival (Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, other embarrassments), sometimes with lounge (Combustible Edison). Neither played to their strengths as a combo.

As I mentioned, the Trend Monster zeroed in on Whalen. A phony ska band called No Doubt had a female singer who looked like a painting on a bombshell, and this only widened the possibilities for exploitation. The Zippers performed at the second inauguration of Bill Clinton, and the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. This is a lot to pile on a performing couple from Carrboro, North Carolina. And you know what? This kind of pressure didn’t really exist before music video. Now every singer is beautiful and boring.

Katharine Whalen made an album in 2006 that I couldn’t find reference for when I drew the strip, and neither she nor it is on Wikipedia. It’s called Dirty Little Secret, ironically, and it’s lounge music. The front cover is the kind of thing the Trend Monster picks out.

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The original incarnation of the Zippers dissolved after Mathus and Whalen had a gruesome divorce. If lawyers can blame Facebook for marital breakups, I can blame music video for killing the Zippers. Nothing should matter but the music. It’s difficult enough to maintain a relationship with another human being, whether intimate or professional. When you attempt both, all the while weathering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, you are fighting fire with nitro. I tell you this from experience.

I can also tell you of the inevitability of death. Trumpeter Stacy Guess left the Zippers just before they recorded Hot in 1995, and died of a 90s-appropriate heroin overdose in 1998. He wrote the raucous instrumental “Bedlam Ballroom”, which became their final album in 2000. That disc is good, but it leans heavily toward a ’50s, Muscle Shoals sound, Whalen is hardly heard, and Tom Maxwell is gone. According to Wikipedia, in 2002, Maxwell and Ken Mosher sued the remaining members of the band over management and royalty issues. The case was settled out of court for $155,000 to cover unpaid royalties.

Since 2007, a group consisting of most of the founding Squirrel Nut Zippers has performed sporadically. I’m not implying drama; it’s a big group, which is a difficult thing to manage and maintain. But time destroys all things, and that goes for grudges, too, especially when the alternative is destitution.

Tom Maxwell’s not back, though. I don’t know what went down with that guy.

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