On the Shaggs musical, “Philosphy of the World”


Philosophy of the World

Well the outsider musicians want what the insider musicians got…but the insider musicians want what the outsider musicians got. How can you write a musical about the Shaggs without loving, understanding, or even trying to get inside their music?

A musical theater piece based on the true life story of the Shaggs is running currently at Playwright’s Horizons.  (Book by Joy Gregory; music by the Bobs’ Gunnar Madsen; lyrics by both.)  If you don’t know the Shaggs, the show works perfectly well. It’s got a captivating and strange story, taken almost beat by beat from Susan Orlean’s 1999 New Yorker article on them. The performers are stupendous, especially the women playing the mother and Helen. The original music is effective in its own “normal” way. It is certainly compassionate to all of the characters in the story, even the superstitious, controlling dad and the shifty record label owner.  But I believe it does the music of the Shaggs a disservice by building on the premise that the music was merely “the worst ever,” created by girls who were simply and only trying to please their dad, girls who had no musical vision or genius. I don’t buy it. You don’t end up creating music that rule-breaking and interesting that way. You don’t end up drawing pictures as bizarre as the “foot foot” cat unless there is something else going on.

The most offensive part of the show has the girls in the recording studio. The composer of this show writes conventional girl group music that is intended to let us hear what was supposedly going on in the girls’ heads, and then contrasts it by playing deliberatedly tinnied-up version of what they actually recorded. Then the engineers react, basically telegraphing to the audience how they are supposed to “hear” the music.  The audience around me reacted with the same horror as the engineers.

The credits of the show are strange. There is no direct crediting of any the Wiggin sisters for actually writing the four Shaggs songs which are heard (in fragmentary form) at points in the show. Only the music publisher is credited, several pages back in the program. I’m sure there’s a story behind that.

There are a couple moments near the end that show what Could Have Been, where the composer seems to write a near-Shaggs song of his own. I think the show would have been more interesting if it included all 12 Shaggs songs in the show, in some way or other. Let us get inside the music by hearing the complete songs, until it begins to make sense. Do some interesting reorchestrations and recompositions of the songs that build on their strengths: The bluntly honest and moving words; the consistently strange lengths and time signatures of the phrases, the odd chromatic curls of the melodies and chord progressions. The impossibly tight psychic synchronization of the two guitars, and the utter lack of conventional synch with the drums; the space that this disconnect creates. The fact that the lead guitar always doubles the vocal line; the fact that, for all their weirdness, the songs are undeniably catchy, and actually catchier and more memorable that the new songs in the show.

A great example of what I am talking about is the Shaggs own re-recording of “My Pal Foot Foot” which they did several years after the original session.  Some of the original chaos is smoothed over, and what is left is a gorgeous and still very strange song.  Every pickup syllable given its own 1-beat measure, regardless of how this throws off the established meter.  There is enough room for everything.  The song makes sense, but on its own terms.  Hearing this song, repeatedly, has positively freed up my own understanding of the elasticity of song form, and has therefore allowed me to fix and finish  countless formerly problematic and abandoned songs of my own.  Innocent?  Ignorant?  Isolated from convention?  I don’t personally find the gifts of a “beginners mind” mentality any less sacred for being less than fully self-consciously arrived at.  Isn’t that the state most artists struggle to reach, self-consciously or not?  (I think the reason Frank Zappa appreciated Beefheart, the Shaggs, and Wild Man Fisher is that he recognized they were in a place he could never hope to go to, with all his self-conscious mathematical precision.  There may have been some contempt in his enjoyment of some of his oddballs, but I suspect there had to be true reverence as well.)

In the end, on a musical level at least, the show seems designed to prop up the idea that there really is some sort of single empirical true standard of “good” and “bad” in art. The girls and family pay for their aesthetic transgressions, as it appears they did in real life. I suspect the real life Wiggin sisters now believe they created bad music. But I also believe they only believe this because they were told so, endlessly, by narrow-minded people. I trust the music more than that. Of course it makes me giggle. It IS outside everything I was taught about music. But there is also great freedom, honesty and discovery there. Austin Wiggin may have been a tyrant and a crazy person. But what he wrote in the liner notes to the Shaggs album was correct.

So I will end with his words: “The Shaggs are real, pure, unaffected by outside influences. Their music is different, it is theirs alone. They believe in it, live it. It is a part of them and they are a part of it. Of all contemporary acts in the world today, perhaps only the Shaggs do what others would like to do, and that is perform only what they believe in, what they feel, not what others think the Shaggs should feel.” Amen!!

Posted in Reviews by our staff