Don’t get mad: I’ve always found Tom Waits to be very tedious listening. I love the homemade instruments, but I’d much rather read about them (as you can, too, in his introduction to the book/companion CD celebration of amazing homemade instruments Gravikords, Whirlies and Pyrophones) than listen to the music Waits makes with them. His albums always clank and rattle a little too self-consciously weird in my ears for me to really get into them.
But I happen to know that we both like a lot of the same things: particularly music and cinema and a toy-like approach to reassembling discarded or forgotten vocabulary units of the past into something new. There’s a lot of cultural debris lying along the proverbial highway just waiting for someone to come along and pick it up. I only wish that more people would go after the little pieces that look like they used to be important components of a machine whose function can only be guessed at now. It’s the difference between finding a tube lying here and a wire over there and having to imagine a new machine using the old parts, and finding the whole machine to dust off and sell at an antique sale to some bourgeois shabby-chic slummer who only cares that it looks old. That was always my problem with the Squirrel Nut Zippers—pious revivals of period idioms are only interesting for so long before they start getting tedious too. Drawing a lot of comparisons to Tom Waits is the Reverend Glasseye and his Wooden Legs. Now there’s a band name that would have made Edward Gorey beam. It sounds like an Edwardian medicine show manned by poser fundamentalists whose ringleader would have convinced true believers that the end was nigh and then bought up all their land for peanuts. Deservedly so, because the twentysomething Rev. (a.k.a. Adam Beckley) belts it out as gruffly as a man three times his age. And he’s usually singing about something pretty creepy, too, at least on the 2001 release Black River Falls, which is fraught with song titles like “Midnight Cabaret,” “50% Murder,” “Blood o’ Lambs” and “Carnival of Pills.” The Wooden Legs boast a lot of unusual or old-time instruments like toy piano, coconuts, dobro and musical saw, but there’s also a Hammond organ sound that sustains the freaky circus vibe by sounding like a midway Wurlitzer. You could even stretch the Waits comparison a little and say that Reverend Glasseye and his Wooden Legs sound like what the Squirrel Nut Zippers might have been if Waits himself had taken over and started writing their songs for them. Except, of course, creepier. Here’s how the Northeast Performer put it in November, 2001, and I like how a carnival or a sinister traveling show was the first thing writer Jeff Breeze thought of too:
“When it’s daytime, the carnival is a place of overstuffed animals and the sweet smells of popcorn and fried dough. At night those enormities become grotesqueries, and all of the surprise and delight turns to paranoia and fear. The gypsy tunes that seemed to dance along with the Ferris wheel now skulk along like dark forms in the shadows at the perimeter. Somehow, you overcome your fear and follow the sound to its source. With used cars circled around a fire like a wagon train, the sound is coming from inside that circumference. The band you have found is Reverend Glasseye and his Wooden Legs, and how they got into your dream, only you know...”
Carnivals, circuses, county fairs and so on occupy a strange place in the psyche. They’re supposed to be escapist, but anyplace with clowns and haggard barkers trying to guess your weight (or your sex, as in The Jerk or reel you in to see the Lobster Boy or the Snake Woman is bound to be a little unnerving, too. At least, once you’re not a kid anymore. In the old days, when county fairs had more men walking around in pants concealing 10-foot stilts and fewer hot-pink stuffed unicorns, people in rural places not accustomed to outsiders must have experienced an odd mix of dread and wonder when the circus came to town.
That’s kind of the feeling you get from Reverend Glasseye and the Wooden Legs. However much of the year they tour, in a way they only play once a year on Halloween night and then disappear, leaving only a few weathered posters and a scurf of dirty sawdust behind them. Step right up, step right up.
Reverend Glasseye and his Wooden Legs play the Ritz Saturday, June 1 at 10 PM. Cover TBA.