And I swore I would never write about the Shaggs, again


So I’m outside the pad here and a car goes past blasting My Pal Foot Foot. Loud. Way loud. Even set off the (admittedly hair trigger) alarm on the neighbor’s SUV. I bet that never happened in your neighborhood, a whooping old school car alarm set off by the Shaggs. I bet it never even happened in your universe. It did here, in mine. Terrified, I ran inside, shut the curtains and waited for the Four Horsemen. They never came of course. Instead I’ve had the Shaggs bouncing off the inside of my skull all afternoon. A shambling, down beat stuttering, in tune only on Jupiter (or beyond) kind of earworm, alleviated only by the world’s greatest trumpeter next door stretching A Night in Tunisia on the rack. The tune cracks, bleeds notes, then dies a descending death where the bridge ought to be. I make the sign of the cross and light a candle.

And now this post is the second time I’ve written about the Shaggs. Here was the first.

And I swore I would never write about the Shaggs

Gavin Harrison, the super-virtuoso prog/fusion drummer (King Crimson, etc.) is a Shaggs freak. He’s played “My Pal Foot Foot” during drum clinics…and confessed that sometimes he would play Shaggs drummer Helen Wiggin’s beats (sic) during King Crimson sets.  The idea of playing My Pal Foot Foot to a bunch of proghead drum students really appeals to me. Imagine them coming home, twirling their sticks, and youtubing it. Feel their pain.

The first time I ever heard the Shaggs was their hit “My Pal Foot Foot”.  Maybe hit is an exaggeration. Only a hundred copies were pressed in 1969 and though some were sent to radio stations (seriously) rock stardom eluded them. By the time I heard their record (at a party, though I can’t remember where) it would have been late into the second Shaggs revival, circa early 80’s (the first Shaggs revival was in the seventies, when Frank Zappa would play them on the Dr. Demento show and said they were better than the Beatles.) I remember distinctly that hearing “My Pal Foot Foot” was an unsettling experience. I couldn’t figure them out at all. I knew they had been a real band yet they were obviously from another planet or at least a long dead civilization. Maybe this is what they listened to in Atlantis as it slipped into the sea. Even the song’s title was disturbing. Like what the hell was a foot foot? Later I discovered it was a cat, which didn’t help things. Who names their cat Foot Foot? Even linguistically it’s wrong. I mean what part of Indo-European don’t they understand? The whole thing was so wrong and bewildering, all of it. When I first heard Trout Mask Replica (recorded the same year as “My Pal Foot Foot”, actually, in 1969) it was all wrong, but it was smart and intellectual and deliberate. Captain Beefheart made sense once you got it. There was a logic, a method. Musicians could play it. But “My Pal Foot Foot”?

So I never did pick up the album, Philosophy of the World. (Philosophy of the World?) I was fascinated and repelled at the same time, like watching the Crumb documentary. I don’t think I ever heard anything that helped me put it into context until I picked up a mess of CDs of Indonesian music and discovered their own meter free music. And while the Shaggs weren’t actually meter free–they just couldn’t play together, and their songs lurched and stalled like a dying carburetor—they might have been huge in certain parts of Indonesia. Foot Foot would have even made linguistic sense there. (What morphologists call reduplication—repeating a word to make another word, like foot into foot foot—doesn’t sound weird at all to an Indonesian.) Somehow that made me feel better.

Still, though, I’d rather not think about it.