The Foremen's first public performance was a communal hallucination in 1988 called the San Pedro Breakfast Club - a room full of really old men who got together every Saturday morning at 7:30 to drink Bloody Marys and reminisce the Spanish-American War.
I took the gig for a couple of reasons: I wanted a low-exposure venue to get the group going, and I took a perverse pleasure in torturing my band mates.
"I feel like SINGIN'!" I sang, at the top of my ever-lovin' lungs, and whanged my banjo senseless. This was a banjo I'd recently acquired from Paul Arnoldi, a genuine Folk Era singer-songwriter out of the Cambridge scene who's still writing and performing and working in Santa Monica. The banjo had been Paul's, but the case I carried it in had belonged to Peter Tork of The Monkees. Perfect. I'd only learned to claw-hammer in the week or two before this show, and I was enthusiastic, if not accurate.
"I feel like SINGIN'!" sang Dana Ferris, for whom 7:30 on a Saturday morning was a myth, a rumor, an impossibility. Dana was a rock and roller. He'd played with innumerable R&B, Blues, Pop, Top-40, New Wave, You-Name-It bands, but his first instrument was the tenor banjo. That morning he played guitar, and despite, or perhaps because of the early hour, his voice jumped an unexpected third to a high G#.
"I feel like SINGIN'!" sang Stevie Coyle, and we all three thrummed our instruments. Stevie had been my partner in comedy and music for years already, through the Comedy Boom of the early Eighties. So much of what I knew about showmanship, so much of the timing and phraseology I employed, in fact so much of my confidence as a performer I'd learned from Stevie who'd actually run away with the circus at one point and learned to fingerpick his guitar while multitasking as a clown, barker and slack-rope walker.
"I FEEL LIKE..." sang Denny Croy, and then, as if realizing he couldn't sing (although he can), shouted "BREAKFAST!"
And that was it. The first shot over the bow - a shot of vodka, if these octogenarians had anything to say about it. We had to talk them into allowing our womenfolk into this men-only enclave - my wife Melanie Harby and Stevie's then-girlfriend Susan Peck. (It's thanks to Susan's Walkman that we're able to include some golden moments from this show on THE BEST OF THE FOREMEN.)
Melanie had named the group, for crying out loud. The Foremen was cooked up in a big stew pot of Folk Music and Theatre and Politics and Humor that only heated up because I met Melanie. This was three years before the San Pedro Breakfast Club. Stevie and I had just finished performing in a run of YUP!, a cabaret show I'd written (the longest running show in San Jose history!), and we were beginning to make headway in the Bay Area comedy clubs as The Reagan Brothers when QUILTERS came to San Jose Rep. This musical theatre piece about the hardships and triumphs of pioneer women featured an all-female cast including a beautiful guitar player who could play sixteenth-note triplets while watching the stage action, and drop a chord right on cue. Needless to say, I hung around the stage door.
Melanie came to see our act and made the astute observation, "You call it 'The Reagan Brothers' but it isn't political." And true enough, the songs I wrote for the act weren't about politics. They were jokey songs, silly and clever but insubstantial - a good way to describe my world view at the time. It wasn't long after this that I was jotting a "to-do" list and added the item, "Develop a political consciousness."
I'd begun writing a Folk Era parody song for The Reagan Brothers, inspired by my discovery of The Wayfarers. This was the summer of '86. I was courting Melanie that summer and I enlisted her help in researching "Song of Many Deaths." "When was Lincoln born?" "When was the Black Plague?" Other flirtatious questions.
The song became part of The Reagan Brothers' act, Melanie became part of mine, and the seeds were planted for a funny, political folk group.
A year later, Melanie and I were accepted as "New Folk" finalists at The Kerrville Folk Festival. We performed two songs on the main stage, Melanie's amazing murdered girl ballad "Blue Clouds Rising" and my "Song of Many Deaths." There, we met Peter Yarrow of Peter Paul and Mary, who was hugging everybody twice and collecting songs on a little cassette deck.
Years later, in Los Angeles, I got a call from Stevie Coyle, saying, "The Limeliters are doing your song, and they're looking for you." He'd heard Rick Dougherty, then with The Limeliters, do the song at a party and say they were about to record it, and needed to know its authorship. They've since included it on two different albums under the title "Until We Get It Right."
Years later than that, Andy Corwin was drafted as a member of The Limeliters, where he performs to this day, and "Until We Get it Right" remains a mainstay of their set. A song of many lives.
So I put the funny folk group together and Melanie came up with the perfect name, and now we'd done our first gig. From the start, The Foremen was a theatre piece - folk music was the vehicle and comedy the genre.
One idea was to produce a daily radio play for syndication - "Front Page '58." We'd sing a little theme song and do a tongue-in-cheek roundup of what happened in the news "...thirty years ago today." It never went beyond a hokey, but hilarious demo.
Stevie, Denny, Dana and I did one more show as The Foremen - a special guest appearance at Variety Night at McCabe's Guitar Shop. Then funny folk music took a back seat to The Twang, Melanie's and my alternative country band which we like to call "an experiment in treble." From 1988 through 1990 we produced one EP, EGGNOG AND OTHER SELECTIONS, and two full length albums on cassette, TRAINS, LOVE AND HEAVEN and the Christmas offering YULE TRAIN. We also produced our first son, Joe, and in 1990, Melanie retired from performing music to become a full-time mother.
Still, the idea of The Foremen lingered, like a low-grade infection, and I continued to write folk tunes. For a short time I worked as a temp in the office of Harold Ramis (ANIMAL HOUSE, GHOSTBUSTERS, GROUNDHOG DAY, etc.) who loved the concept of The Foremen, and suggested some song ideas - a whaling song that gets grosser and grosser, which became "A-Whalin'" and a work song full of incomprehensible lingo, which became "Jeeter."
I began to rehearse a new Foremen lineup. Doug Whitney was a good friend already, an accomplished multi-instrumentalist and cracker-barrel philosopher with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Folk Era. And I'd played some cabaret shows with D.C. Anderson, whose soaring, heart-rending tenor voice made him, I thought, The Foremen's Glen Yarbrough. I brought Denny back in to play bass, and we had, once again, four men.
D.C. was involved in organizing a benefit for the embattled nonprofit Los Angeles Theatre Center. The high-profile event was our first performance as the newly reconstituted Foremen - "Song of Many Deaths," what else? - and we brought down the house. That is, the theatre didn't survive. But we made one invaluable ally, the effusive and indefatigable Jeannine Frank who would become our booking agent, later our manager, and the person without whom we would never have been signed to Warner Brothers Records.
I booked as many shows as I could for this Foremen, which was difficult as D.C. was a member of the PHANTOM OF THE OPERA cast and could only perform on Monday nights.
Nevertheless, we worked up a lot of material in a short time. I'd written a bunch of mock-folk songs, most of which were still pretty apolitical. But there was "Saddam Shame," which I'd written during Gulf War I, at the behest of Jerry Rubin. (Not the Yippie-turned-yuppie Jerry Rubin, but the West Coast peace activist Jerry Rubin, founder of the Alliance for Survival and later, inspiration for "Peace is Out.") That song served as a catalyst for writing sociopolitical satire. The more I wrote of that stuff, the more natural I felt writing it, and soon, it was the heart of The Foremen set, and I could check off that box next to "Develop a political consciousness."
We did a series of shows at The Itchy Foote, a cabaret space associated with the Mark Taper Forum, and some at a Santa Monica Club called At My Place. For one of those shows, I buzz-cut my hair and changed my stage name to Bob Killjoy, an attempt, though ill-conceived, to move The Foremen in a more theatrical direction. "Thanks BOB," said Doug, his voice dripping with dubious amusement.
Before long, we were popular enough to play on nights of the week other than Mondays, and it became clear I'd have to find another Glen Yarbrough. I knew I'd never find another D.C. Anderson.
But I remembered a clarion-toned tenor I'd worked with in a showcase years before. Kenny Rhodes jumped in with both feet, and brought not just his voice, his great timing and his mercurial humor, but also a genuine vigor for the project. He was constantly contributing to the group. Props. Sound effects. Cartwheels. With Kenny, I knew I could share the MC duties onstage and the organizational duties off.
As we played more often, we faced more conflicts for Denny's services as a bass player. Apparently, he had to make a living, and other, better established bands could offer him more than an evening of hilarity. Kenny knew a bass-player-by-night-accountant-by-day who might be interested, and we invited him to a show we did as three men at the Santa Monica Playhouse. The friend loved the show, but played only electric.
There was, however, another friend of Kenny's in attendance that night, a classmate of his at UCLA years before, who said he owned and played a standup bass. Andy Corwin was his name, and he was lying.
Andy attended our next show, opening for Del McCoury in Pasadena. (An odd double bill -Bluegrass fans and lefty folkies are not a natural mix.) And by the time he came to rehearsal, Andy had hocked his wife Sylvia's mandolin and bought an upright bass. He was not to be stopped. Not only is Andy a capable musician and a very funny man, but he's got a booming bass voice that perfectly complimented Doug's, Kenny's and mine. Andy was in, and we were the quintessential quartet.
We dressed Kingston Trio style - khaki slacks and striped, short-sleeve shirts (florescent orange, from the Gap). We gleefully embraced the anachronism of it. It was a hip-to-be-square experience, with an element of spectacle, especially because we all wore little round glasses.
I think we came of age, at least in the eyes of the folk community, at the Los Angeles Folk Festival. Never heard of it? This was 1992, the festival's second and final year. (Los Angeles has a hard timing sustaining a folk festival, a jazz club and more than one nonprofit theatre company.) We met Arlo Guthrie. We met Alex Hassilev of The Limeliters. We shared billing with The Folksmen, the Spinal Tap guys in their folky incarnation.
That was the event where the wind played havoc with the instrument tent, taking the neck right off of Andy's bass (nee, Silvia's mandolin).
We were getting tighter and tighter musically. We had a solid repertoire, including "Workin' on an MBA," "California Couldn't Pay Our Education," "Jesse, Yes He Did" and others that were proving themselves well. The Twang had recorded at Juniper Studios in Burbank, and the owner, David Bolger, offered studio time to The Foremen. We went in during off hours and knocked out our first album, FOLK HEROES.
The album featured a brand new song, "Do the Clinton," which proved to be pivotal. Not only was I making fun of a Democrat, but I was doing it in a pop music style, expanding beyond our narrow folky focus.
Soon, we traded in the striped shirts. We'd saved up $800 and we spent it on four suits with matching purple satin ties and handkerchiefs. The sophistication was almost unbearable. I was enamored of the idea of turning The Foremen into a true theatre piece, with a set and dialogue and a plot line. I drafted a script.
We played as often as we could, building an audience the old-fashioned way, with a mailing list and flyers which I'd spend hours cutting and pasting. We booked clubs, like Highland Grounds in Hollywood, but we'd also play Jeannine's Parlor Performances in people's living rooms in the chi chi "North of Montana" section of Santa Monica.
We played an art gallery on San Vicente one Friday night where we caught the attention of attorney Hillel Chodos. Hillel liked the idea of a theatrical production, and offered to finance it. That threw us into high gear. We designed a set, replete with almost-life-size cutouts of ourselves (humble, I know) and giant blowups of the album covers that inspired the group. And we booked a series of thirteen dates at a trendy West Hollywood club called Luna Park.
My script proved cumbersome, but much of the dialogue remained, and transmuted into standard Foremen patter. The "Bug Bites" bit. Doug's "Folk Era" bit. The interplay between Kenny and me. It wasn't Hamlet, but the show had a shape with its expository opening number, "I Been Singin'," its folky/funny/lefty through-line, its goof on "Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore" and its evangelical "Ain't No Liberal" finale.
In keeping with our theatrical approach, we brought in Richard Kuller to direct. Tap-dancer extraordinaire (and a masterful lyricist in his own right,) Richard added blocking and choreography, and contributed mightily to the shape and flow of the show.
After thirteen shows we extended the run for a month, then another, then indefinitely. We ultimately performed one hundred fifteen shows there in the downstairs room. (One Sunday afternoon, we came upstairs after sound check to find the owners of the club buying guns out of a brief case.)
We recorded a second album called SING IT LOUD! LIVE AT LUNA PARK. It included some Foremen classics, "Hell Froze Over Today" and "Building for the Future" and some personality-driven songs that tend to have a shorter shelf life: "Rosty-Mon," about Dan Rostenkowski, "Russian Limbaugh" about Russia's Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and "Ollie Ollie Off Scot Free," which we later got to perform right in Oliver North's face on his own radio show.
After the massacre of the ‘94 elections, I expanded The Foremen's theatrical vision, and we staged a series we called FUNERAL FOR THE AMERICAN LIBERAL with special guests including Paul Krassner, Rick Overton, Beth Lapides and Phil Proctor. We carried the ashes of the dear departed in a gilded Birkenstock box and sang the inspirational anthem "Everyman (For Himself)."
One Sunday afternoon, we did a set in the coffeehouse section of Borders Books in Westwood. The stage was set facing the stairway, not the tables. It was ultra-casual, and I, frankly, was not taking it that seriously. But someone who saw us that day told a friend, "You've gotta see these guys. If you don't like these guys, I'll put your kids through college." The friend he told was David Altschul, head counsel of Warner Brothers Records.
This is where Jeannine was our sine qua non. She was the reason that contact was made, and she nursed it and nurtured it into a major label record deal. (In fact, all good things that came to The Foremen were a result of Jeannine's heartfelt tenacity.)
A short time later, we got the word we'd been booked to play a private event for People For the American Way. In fact, they'd already booked Mary Chapin Carpenter, but they bumped her for us. This was, as it turned out, our audition. David was in attendance, and so were Howie Klein, President of Reprise Records, and Jim Ed Norman, President of Warner, Nashville.
Our message was a good comedic counterpart to the serious message of People For. And we were lucky to have in Howie and Jim Ed, two record executives who were politically engaged and socially committed people. We never got the phone call that said, "You're signed!" The news just sort of dawned on us when we found ourselves in the Warner offices discussing what kind of an album we would make.
We started traveling, too. The Austin Lounge Lizards brought us to Texas for their "Tirade of Troubadours" show during the South-by-Southwest Conference. One of the troubadours in the tirade was Don Freed, a hilarious Canadian writer who arrived with another notable Canadian by the name of Joni Mitchell.
And Warner flew us to Nashville for a performance at the label headquarters as a way of saying, "Look what you've gotten yourself into."
Very soon thereafter, we were in the studio. We worked at first in a very cool studio tucked into the Encino Hills called The House of Blues - a room full of plaster busts of famous rock-and-rollers, and portraits of Babaji. Jim Ed co-produced with Andy Paley, a producer of Brian Wilson, Jonathan Richman and others who instantly got the style and humor of our stuff, and just as instantly chose Kenny as the goat for his jokes. I think he sensed that Kenny could take it, and dish it back, which he could and did.
The Warner FOLK HEROES contained some "live" tracks, that is, live in the studio just as we performed them, and some "production" tracks. I must admit, I went production crazy, and availed myself of the Big Label resources, and it could be argued (successfully) that the full-blown arrangements and lush instrumentations I indulged in did not make the songs any funnier.
Most of the cuts on Folk Heroes were songs we'd been doing for some time. But I wrote the immigration anthem "Send 'Em Back" in time to be included. Also "My Conservative Girlfriend" which began its life as an up tempo, strummy pop kind of thing, but which Melanie wisely convinced me to reshape as a Motown ballad.
Also, Andy Paley had a song idea. Bill Clinton had fired his Surgeon General, Joycelyn Elders, for suggesting that sex education should include masturbation. The topic, not the act. Still, "Firing the Surgeon General" was a great euphemism. I thought we should co-write the song, but Andy insisted I handle it myself.
With "Peace Is Out" I'd written my homage to The Beach Boys' PET SOUNDS. And one day, while we were working on the song, Brian Wilson stopped into the studio. The idea was that maybe he'd sing backup on the track. He listened and fiddled with his watch, then kind of paced out to the foyer where our lunch had been delivered. We found him with an entire slab of salmon on a fork. He never did sing, but we got to spend a few minutes after lunch huddled around him at the piano ad-libbing a sort of honky tonk arrangement of "Wimawe." For me, a thrill.
Another thrill: the label contacted Tom Lehrer, who'd recorded for Reprise back when, and secured from the master of topical songs a blurb which I'll always cherish.
We never toured, in the strict sense of touring. We traveled quite a bit, doing high-profile benefits and fund-raisers with actual gigs for actual people thrown in there, too.
It was in Washington, D.C. that Jim Ed took me aside and said, "Roy, never stop writing. So many artists do a brilliant first album because they've got ten years of material to choose from, then succumb to the excitement and business of being signed to a major label, and forget to write. If you come up with one good song for every ten that you write, you're doing great. But you've got to write those ten, so keep writing."
In one memorable weekend, we played a bewildering array of shows in New York - a big media event sponsored by the Creative Coalition at the upscale Pierre Hotel, a set for the Clearwater Folk Festival under an overpass in the chilly drizzle, an appearance at the Triad Cabaret on the upper west side, and a never-to-be-forgotten set at CBGB. (Yes, The Foremen are a bunion on the little toe of a footnote in Rock and Roll history.)
We continued to play Luna Park at home. Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary came to see one show, and joined us onstage for "Michael." We bought new suits. (I think we spent $400 each this time.) We opened for Dennis Miller and Bill Maher.
It was the label's plan to get two albums out before the '96 election. So it wasn't long before we were back in the studio. Once again, we tracked the record in the Encino Hills, and mixed it with engineer Mark Linett at his studio in Glendale. Once again, I fell in love with the recording process. I think songs like "Privateers of the Public Airwaves," "Who Needs Art?" and "My School Prayer" are glorious recordings, and I'll leave it to folk historians to decide if they'd have been funnier without all the overdubs.
WHAT'S LEFT? featured cover art by legendary political cartoonist Paul Conrad (drafting an idea suggested by Melanie.) True to Jim Ed's counsel, it was not as strong an album, as I had fallen out of the regimen of writing constantly.
Another odd weekend in New York was New Years, 1995. We were booked to open for The Turtles in their annual two-night celebration at The Bottom Line. But Flo and Eddy weren't getting along, and they were replaced at the last minute by Ronny Specter. "Don't look at Ronny!" we were warned as we entered the club for sound check. Her audience was only slightly more hospitable. Then, January 1 at the stroke of midnight, we played biologist, Stephen Jay Gould's wedding.
As the political season heated up, we got busier. We grew very adept at huddling around one microphone, playing Right Wing talk radio shows. Warner hired a political PR firm to promote us, a company whose other clients included Taiwan. I told them that next time Taiwan toured, I wanted to open for them.
I had another theatrical brainstorm - an alternative to the summer's national political conventions. An "Un-Convention" to be staged within camera-shot of the Republican one, to feature The Foremen and other comics, rock bands, speakers, etc. The idea got no traction at the label, but they did set us up with events at both the Republican and Democratic shindigs, and there were songs on WHAT'S LEFT? anticipating both.
The Republican show in San Diego had its moments - sneaking in with borrowed credentials to do some radio. But that was the year of Bob Dole. Not even Jack Kemp, his running mate, seemed all that excited about the prospect of a Dole presidency. My song, "Bob Dole (the Soul of Rock and Roll)" was only mildly amusing. Complacency is slippery footing for satire.
We spent a week in Chicago with the Democrats. For a while, it looked like it might rekindle the spirit of the Chicago convention of 1968, but it was soon apparent that this was to serve as a Clinton coronation and that protest and dissent and, yes, satire would be relegated to page 13.
As a band, we'd become very professional. As slick as funny folk can be. We could play very effectively for audiences large and nonexistent, in a huge theatre or a tiny radio booth, with hours of prep or on the spur of the moment. We knew our characters, and we'd developed a sizable lexicon of political humor.
I came away from Chicago a bit disillusioned, having seen firsthand the incredible manipulation of information and the cynicism of party politics, and observing also that our effectiveness as a funny folk band hadn't translated into record sales. Maybe because of this, I found myself writing a different kind of song, more personal and stream-of-consciousness than the typical "Foremen song."
When I told the other Foremen that I intended to leave the band, Kenny had already heard that Warner Records was dropping us. It was news to me. But it confirmed my feeling that the original idea for a funny, political Folk Era group, the inspiration that shot The Foremen toward the sky, had seen the arc of its original trajectory. It had gone farther than anyone might have guessed, and it had been an amazing flight.
I knew there were other songs for me to write, and other ways for me to reach people, but I knew also that there were many audiences who hadn't yet delighted to The Foremen. So I was very glad when Matt Cartsonis, a folky of impeccable credentials and wry humor agreed to step into the band in my place. And when Matt's schedule proved too busy, I was happy to see Lance Guest take the spot. Lance, a terrific actor and musician, had seen forty Foremen shows before he became a member, so he slipped in seamlessly.
There's a lot I did as a Foremen I might never have done otherwise; it was an incredibly expansive experience. I loved the camaraderie. I loved singing harmony. I loved giving birth to an idea that was cared for and raised to maturity by so many great people. And I loved doing some good work and fighting some good fights while making people laugh.
And still, when I hear these songs, I FEEL LIKE SINGIN'!