Roy Zimmerman sings songs like “Abstain with Me,” “Kill a Doctor for Christ” and “Jerry Falwell’s God.” “In a sense,” he says, “recessionary times and times of international conflict and apprehension, these are good times for satirists because people stay vitally interested in what’s happening.”
Roy Zimmerman sings songs like “Abstain with Me,” “Kill a Doctor for Christ” and “Intelligent Design.” The Marin, Calif., satirist has been at this form of tongue-in-cheek wordplay since he founded his band, The Foremen, in 1988, and signed with Warner Bros. His swipes at fundamentalist rightwingers—though he’s prone to pick on anybody—netted him shows with George Carlin, counterculture icon Paul Krassner, Bill Maher and the Pixies’ Frank Black. He’s been compared to Tom Lehrer, a preeminent 1960s musical satirist and his style jumps from the Beach Boys to Pete Seeger to Ani DiFranco. He’s Weird Al with an edge.
Since going solo in 2006, Zimmerman’s released Homeland and Security—a double disc featuring “Jerry Falwell’s God” and “One World, One Bank”—and his newest album, Thanks for the Support, where he sings about a love affair between George W. Bush and Iraq titled “I’ll Pull Out.”
Zimmerman hits Missoula this week on his “Real American” tour of all 50 states. Here he shares with the Indy his encounter with Oliver North, his love for Unitarians and why he thinks the end of the Bush administration isn’t the end of satire.
Indy: You once sang a song called “Ollie Ollie Off Scot Free” to Oliver North on his radio show. How did that go?
Zimmerman: You know what makes that unsurprising? He’s a huge egotist like all of these guys are. So it doesn’t matter to him that it’s insulting—it’s about him and that’s all he cares about. He did censor the song, through his producer. There’s a line that says, “Who knows the market price for lobster and cocaine?” which was a reference to the drug sales on the streets of Los Angeles, which funded the Contra war. It’s pretty esoteric now but it had a devastating effect on inner city Los Angeles and there was a direct tie to the covert war that the U.S. was funding in Nicaragua. Anyway, he didn’t like the cocaine reference, so he said he wanted us to change it. So, we sang “Who knows the market price for lobster and innocent civilians?” And he was okay with that.
Indy: That’s weird. But, still, you’ve had to pull punches?
Zimmerman: That’s one of the regrets. If that was one of your questions we can go ahead and skip ahead to that one. That was a regret that I had, that I changed the song. You know I should have just sort of, in insurgent fashion, said, “Oh sure, sure we’ll change that” and then go on the air and sing it the right way. I was never going to get invited back anyway.
Indy: Have you had any other encounters with people you’ve satirized?
Zimmerman: I would love to. My song “Ted Haggard is Completely Heterosexual” is in this documentary that Alexandra Pelosi did that’s been on HBO recently called The Trials of Ted Haggard, and her intent was to come film me playing the song and then play the song for him and film him watching the song. And that isn’t how it ended up in the film, unfortunately. I would love to either see that footage or actually go do the song for him.
Indy: Tell me about sharing the stage with people like George Carlin or Paul Krassner.
Zimmerman: George Carlin was a very generous person. I got to meet him just that once when I did a show with him down in Long Beach and got to hang with him back stage. It was great to be able to sit there and be a fly on the wall. He and Paul Krassner were hanging out and the two of them were reminiscing about Lenny Bruce and so forth. And they got on the subject of songs that get stuck in your head, like mind worms I guess you’d say, and what you do to get that song out of your head. They each had a song they’d sing to get the other song unstuck and [it] turned out to be the same song. [It was] called “Poor Little Rhode Island” and it was written long enough ago that it refers to “the greatest state in the 48.” It’s a catchy little tune, and they began belting it out backstage. That was pretty cool, hearing the two of them do a kind of Everly Brothers thing.
Indy: Why do you perform in Unitarian churches on tour?
Zimmerman: The Unitarians [have] a liberal faith community. It’s a very welcoming open space. The joke is: They don’t burn a cross on your lawn, they burn a question mark. Doubt is a valuable part of the Unitarian experience. What could be better for someone who does analytical political music? And they’re unafraid to laugh in church. I love that.
Indy: Is laughter the best medicine?
Zimmerman: Penicillin is the best medicine, but it isn’t funny. Okay, we went through eight years where we had to laugh. Now we’re in an era where we get to laugh. We don’t know if all these problems are going to get worked out, if Obama is going to be successful bringing Democrats and Republicans together, for instance, but we do know he’s capable of uniting a subject and a predicate.
Indy: What happens to satire now that the Bush administration is gone?
Zimmerman: The worst thing is not that we have a progressive administration in place—that’s fine, that’s cool. The worst thing would be apathy, like what happens in good times when people stop caring. In a sense, recessionary times and times of international conflict and apprehension, these are good times for satirists because people stay vitally interested in what’s happening.
Indy: Why tour to Missoula?
Zimmerman: It’s heartening to me to get out of Marin County, the bluest county in the bluest state of the union and meet the most progressive people in the least progressive places. I like to find out that all of America is hotbed of progressive sentiment and action.
Roy Zimmerman plays the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Sunday, April 19, at 7 PM. $12 suggested donation.