Break Like the Wind

Spinal Tap tapped, the Folksmen turn it way down from 11.

Spinal fluids, from left: Harry Shearer, Michael McKean - and Christopher Guest as the Folksmen...old - folksmen.
Spinal fluids, from left: Harry Shearer, Michael McKean and Christopher Guest as the Folksmen...old folksmen.
They were loud once, deafeningly so--and dumbingly so, if such a thing is possible. They wore skins of leather stuffed with cucumbers of foil, towered over dwarves who danced around a Stonehenge made of pebbles, sang about women who fit like flesh tuxedos and explored the majesty of rock and the mystery of roll. These men, sitting here on a sofa in the Driskill Hotel in Austin, were heavy-metal darlings who turned out to be made of recycled aluminum, as revealed in a 1984 documentary that flattered till it flattened them. From left sit David Ivor St. Hubbins, Nigel Tufnel and Derek Smalls, or at least what remains of the band known as Spinal Tap. For now they've been retired, put out to pasture on the sex farm.

In their place, left to right, are Jerry Palter, Alan Barrows and Mark Shubb--the Folksmen, as they've been collectively known since 1961, when Barrows and Shubb, then known as the Twobadors, left Vermont for Greenwich Village and met Palter at a club called The Folk Place. Throughout the 1960s, they would release on the Folktown label albums such as Singin', Pickin' and Hitchin' and garner a single Top 70 hit, "Eat at Joe's." The Folksmen came of age alongside such acts as the New Main Street Singers, the neuftet that recorded 30 albums in the 1960s, chief among them Songs of Good Cheer; and Mitch and Mickey, a lovesick duo who pined away for each other on albums like If This Rose Could Talk and Songs from a Love Nest till their tragic breakup sent Mitch Cohen into a downward spiral of depression and madness that culminated with his albums Songs from a Dark Place and Cry for Help. Not long ago, all three acts reunited in Manhattan for a concert paying homage to Irving Steinbloom, the promoter who made stars of them during the folk-music heyday, which is captured in the just-released film A Mighty Wind.

Of course, there is no Spinal Tap, no Folksmen, only Michael McKean (St. Hubbins, now Palter) and Christopher Guest (Tufnel, now Barrows) and Harry Shearer (Smalls, now Shubb), three men who find little funny about making comedy or music. (They penned most of the music in A Mighty Wind, as they'd done for 1984's This is Spinal Tap.) There are no Mitch and Mickey, only Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara, who have known each other three decades, long before they were on SCTV. There are no New Main Street Singers, only Parker Posey and John Michael Higgins and Jane Lynch and other veterans of two films Guest has made as director, Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show.

Like its predecessors, A Mighty Wind is an entirely improvised "documentary" gently mocking those who take themselves too seriously, who need the mighty wind knocked out of them--in this case, folk musicians who protest nothing, who sing songs about never wanderin' anywhere, who perform historical ballads about people and places that never quite existed.

The Folksmen perform songs about train accidents in coal mines, about diners with bad signs, about lispy field workers haunted by "the silver tentacles of the moon's rays." The New Main Street Singers, wielding more guitars than a Fender outlet store, come on like street-corner cultists; their chirpy "The Good Book Song" insists if David didn't smite Goliath, "our bosses would all be 30 feet tall...and we'd sleep in the cracks between their toes." As for Mitch and Mickey, it all comes down to one pivotal moment: It is said their kiss on live TV, during their performance of "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow," was "the most momentous event in humankind." For them, all that remains to be seen is if, when reunited, they will smooch again and whether decades of madness and sadness will vanish.

"There is obviously a string that connects all of these movies, in terms of the earnestness of the characters," says Guest, who co-wrote the outline of A Mighty Wind with Levy. "That's a good word for folk musicians, that they're earnest about their work and they take that seriously, and that's true for these guys [in A Mighty Wind]. It's kind of fun finding different versions of that. The New Main Street Singers take themselves really seriously: They work their asses off to rehearse, their harmonies are perfect, they work on their appearance. To us, the Folksmen, that would be insane, but, of course, it goes both ways. The Folksmen look down on them as commercializing folk music. And then there's Mitch and Mickey, who are immersed in this more romantic version of writing songs."

"Moviemakers always draw their humor from stupid people, kooky people," says Shearer, who sports in the film a frightening neck beard. "I think that happens a lot. You have a much broader range when you say, 'Well, the canvas is people who take themselves too seriously.' They can be smart, they can be less smart, they can be all kinds of folks, but when they have this in common, you have a much wider range to choose from as an actor."

"Farces are always about very serious things," says McKean. "They're always about getting caught cheating on your wife or whatever. To the character, if it's not serious, it's not funny."

"But this isn't a farce," says Guest, interrupting.

"It's not a farce. Yeah, I know that," McKean says. At this point it's worth noting that McKean and Guest were roommates, and aspiring songwriters and musicians, at New York University around the same time the folk-music scene was exploding and imploding; they would act out scenes in the room for an imaginary camera, then carry them into the classroom and beyond. They disagree like old friends, in other words; still, this is Guest's film, his vision, his voice.

"There's an investment in the seriousness of the characters, and without that, there's nothing to hang it on in this kind of film," Guest says. "In the Folksmen, who existed prior to this movie, Michael's character has this hunger for being popular. Harry and I are along for the ride, but he's the guy trying to pull us along. So even within the group, there are these different versions of being serious. We talked about this idea when we were on the film. Harry's referred to in the film as the group historian, but that's all relative. He wasn't down in Selma picketing, but he knew somebody who was. It's just one step removed."

"I saved the postcard," Shearer says.

The Folksmen were actually born November 3, 1984, when Michael McKean hosted Saturday Night Live and he, Guest and Shearer performed "Eat at Joe's," presented in the film as the Folksmen's signature hit (it's the song in which Shearer deep-throats the punch line about a diner's busted neon sign, which reads "Ea a Oe's"). That performance was one of the series' highlights that season: Shearer and Guest had joined during SNLs 10th season as its temporary saviors, along with Billy Crystal and Martin Short--"and it wasn't even worth saving then," says Shearer, another unhappy survivor of Lorne Michael's ship.

Nineteen years ago, they had only a skeleton of a back story for these three men; they had their funny song and were going to play it straight, the Tap unplugged and unbound from leather get-ups. And the roots were not entirely deep or deep-felt at the time: The Folksmen were actually hatched, accidentally, as the result of an interview McKean had given to Rolling Stone about Spinal Tap.

"We had talked about this prior to doing the show, about these characters," Guest says. "But McKean [had done] an interview with Rolling Stone, in which they said, 'What are you going to do next?' and he said, 'Maybe folk guys, because we look like folk guys ourselves.' They shot a picture of us as Tap and then on the other page just regularly. And we kind of looked at each other like, 'Hmmm.' That's how that seed got planted. And because we played so much together as musicians and the other stuff, it seemed like a good idea."

"Because we were doing a scene [for Saturday Night Live] that revolved around the tensions of the group, as to what we were going to end up performing on the air," Shearer explains, "we did have a preliminary version..."

Guest interrupts. "Well, you have to, because that was improvised as well. The way these films are done, you have to have a tremendous amount of material as background to be able to improvise. You can't just start talking without any ground rules. You need structure that is, sometimes, more severe than a conventional movie. Otherwise you're lost."

In an odd way, A Mighty Winds feels inevitable, if such a thing were possible. If the three were to remain together as musical, and not just movie, partners, Spinal Tap was beginning to feel a bit, well, tapped out. Eight years after This is Spinal Tap and its accompanying soundtrack, the three regrouped in the studio and onstage for a concert film (The Return of Spinal Tap, a doc-concert hybrid done at the Royal Albert Hall) and album (Break Like the Wind) that further blurred the line between stupid and clever by employing Cher, Jeff Beck, Slash and Joe Satriani--a sort of Vinyl Tap themselves, come to think of it. Only two years ago the Tap played Carnegie Hall; the boys had become, perhaps, too respectable.

"In some ways, this was a relief from the Tap thing," Guest says.

"Spinal Tap is about the bombast overpowering," McKean adds.

"It's also about the sheer aural sort of assault on your senses," Guest says. "I remember occasionally pulling out acoustics and going, 'Boy, this is fun. You can hear.'"

Shearer adds, "Our acoustic sets would be like that."

"Yeah, and this is really fun," Guest says. "And then actually thinking, 'Man, this guy really plays good bass."

"Derek would never agree," says Smalls. Pardon, says Shearer.

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