Presidents of the United States of America
Riviera Theatre, June 14
By Steve Knopper
In comparing Madonna favorably to David Letterman, Norman Mailer once complained that the talk-show host didn't stand for anything. Other comics--Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, even Jay Leno--satirized society, while Letterman only intended to make you laugh for a few minutes before going to bed.
Mailer probably isn't a big fan of the Presidents of the United States of America, a Seattle grunge-rock trio fronted by a gangly bald freak. The lyrics to their big hit "Lump" mean nothing as near as I can tell--they're about a girl named Lump who's stuck in the singer's head and who also might be dead. Their other songs tackle such heavyweight topics as kitties, peaches, and dune buggies. But so what? If rock 'n' roll wasn't invented to make you laugh, humor has certainly been a lucrative by-product. Some of rock's most memorable songs--like the Kingsmen's "Louie Louie" or the Trashmen's "Surfin' Bird"--say almost nothing of substance. They endure because they're simple and fun.
Funny bands have a certain dignity. If you try to make people laugh and you fail, well, at least you tried. If you try to make a serious statement of political value or social insight and you fail, you sound pretentious and self-indulgent--far worse sins, if you ask me, than merely being unfunny. In other words, I'd rather listen to the Presidents sing a cutesy chorus of "meow meow meow meow meow meow" than decipher all the opaque spiritual references in Bush's "Everything Zen."
Whenever I hear Mojo Nixon's song "Elvis Is Everywhere," which solves the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle ("Elvis needs boats!"), I laugh out loud. Too Much Joy's description of the head-turning subject in "Donna Everywhere"--"white teeth, red hair / she hated underwear"--is brilliant. And the clueless slackers conversing about AIDS in the Dead Milkmen's "Bitchin' Camaro" are still funny to me after God knows how many times I've heard the song. Nixon and TMJ's Tim Quirk are genuinely clever, which gives them an edge in this genre. I almost always give rockers credit for trying to be funny, and I'm delighted that the Presidents occasionally succeed.
The line on the Presidents is that since they're funny they automatically have a leg up on all those depressed and occasionally suicidal Seattle bands. But they're really filling an old niche. Artists make introspective music until people get sick of it; then the jesters come in to lighten the mood. The great Screamin' Jay Hawkins, who rose from coffins onstage in the 1950s, was one of the many clowning counterbalances to angst-filled blues singers and serious R & B musicians. Most of the original punk bands used sarcasm to deflate the pretensions of a music scene dominated by arena rockers, and then when punk's politics became too serious it spawned bands like the Milkmen. If rockers take themselves too seriously today, you can count on "Weird Al" Yankovic to make parodies of their videos on MTV.
Friday night's show at the Riviera began with nice sets by Menthol and the Fastbacks. Then the Presidents took the stage like liberators. Serious alternative acts are restricted by nebulous punk guidelines from regurgitating rock-star cliches, such as saying "thank you" to the crowd, or shouting "Hello Chicago," or even playing their biggest hits. The Presidents leap into these cliches with genuine enthusiasm, but they're hardly sarcastic and never cynical. Singer Chris Ballew wore one red sock and one blue sock, and when a fan tossed a hideous orange wig onstage he plopped it on his bald head and went on with the show.
The Presidents can do whatever they want without fear of being labeled unsophisticated. They played on the same night as game five of the NBA Finals wearing T-shirts touting the Bulls' nemeses, the Seattle Supersonics. A small television set was tuned to the game. They sang the self-deprecating "We Are Not Going to Make It," with the lyrics "there's a million better bands, with a million better songs," then segued into "We're Gonna Make It After All," a variation on the theme from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. They covered the MC5's "Kick Out the Jams" and made it sound deliberately fun, unlike the original, which was a howling political plea for rock rebellion.
It was a refreshing, relaxing show. Playing most of the songs from their self-titled 1995 debut--"Kitty," "Lump," "Stranger," "Peaches," "Dune Buggy," and "Back Porch"--the Presidents sang some purely goofy lyrics. The joke in "Kitty" comes when Ballew shouts "fuck you" as if he were the world-weary leader of Soundgarden or the Screaming Trees, but he's really shouting at a wailing cat that's driving him crazy. The chorus to "Naked and Famous" is "Everybody wants to be naked and famous," and that's about its only point.
The Presidents shouldn't be dismissed as just another funny bar band. I heard deceptively complex rhythms and the confidence of a tight unit that has spent considerable time honing its sound. The two guitarists have just five strings between them--Ballew plays the two-string "basitar" while Dave Dederer plays the three-string "guitbass"--and they cooperate to form a rumbling grunge sound. They also have the flexibility to bounce their stop-and-start rhythms along with mood-shifting drummer Jason Finn. When the guitars play in minor keys and sound depressing, Finn brightens the song with playful cowbells and rattles.
The Presidents' new songs are about such subjects as puffy pink shoes and lunatics for love, so it's a safe bet they won't be playing funeral dirges or industrial disco anytime soon. It's very possible that they'll fade away after another album or two. Until then, they've contributed one classic nonsensical summer single, "Lump," to rock 'n' roll radio; some concert tours of escapist fun; and an album of jokes and narratives that sometimes works and sometimes fails. All this ranks them among the Trashmen, Kingsmen, and Dead Milkmen--not bad company if you like a good joke.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Presidents of the United States of America by Marty Perez.