I have seen Woodstock and I have seen The Last Waltz. I have seen Don't Look Back, Eat the Document, and No Direction Home. I have seen the Maysles Brothers' documentary about the Rolling Stones, as well as Jean-Luc Godard's semi-documentary about the Rolling Stones and Robert Frank's notoriously unreleased documentary about the Rolling Stones, which legend has it you're only legally allowed to watch in the presence of both Jagger and Richards. (It was only okay.) I have seen The Great Rock and Roll Swindle as well as The Filth and the Fury, Julien Temple's two different documentaries about the Sex Pistols. I have seen that double-DVD Tom Petty documentary. I have seen the special features. I have seen the movie where Chris Holmes from W.A.S.P. slowly drinks himself nearly to death in a darkened swimming pool enclosure and Ozzy pours the orange juice all over the counter. I have seen David Bowie's cocaine skeleton doing Burroughsian cut-ups on the floor of a luxury hotel in the difficult-to-find TV special Cracked Actor. To varying degrees, I enjoyed all these films, but if you asked me to tell you my very-favorite-ever cinematic document of a rock and roll band, I would have to break down and admit that it's a 10-dollar import DVD of Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show doing a live-for-German-TV performance sometime in 1974.
I have seen it at least 30 times.
I'm not saying this little live DVD by a largely forgotten band is better than the abovementioned films by the likes of Scorsese, Godard, Pennebaker, and Bogdanovich. What I am saying, though, is that none of these films has provided me with the same feeling of entertainment verging on sheer life-affirming joy as has Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show: Live, and that none has so consistently reminded me what playing music onstage should, at its very highest point, feel like.
I want to explain why to you but, before writing another word, I'd like to promise you something: At no point will I make any kind of postmodern bid to revise the 1970s rock canon to place Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show anywhere remotely near its creative center. A strained case could be made I guess, but to make such a case would involve a kind of pretense that is the direct antithesis to the music of Dr. Hook, which is possibly the most unpretentious rock music ever recorded. Furthermore, I promise to make no attempt to paint Dr. Hook as anything other than what they were: a down-and-dirty Jersey bar band whose tunes more often than not crossed the line into novelty rock, an outlet for the pop-lyrical efforts of countercultural humorist and children's author Shel Silverstein, and, later, a banal disco band specializing in workmanlike ballads such as "When You're in Love with a Beautiful Woman."
The biggest hit of Dr. Hook's early career was "Cover of the Rolling Stone," a rollicking country-rock tune composed by Silverstein, whose mission in writing the song was fairly transparent. In "Cover of the Rolling Stone," Dr. Hook makes unsubstantiated boasts about playing to giant crowds all over the world, cruising in limousines, bedding young groupies who embroider their custom-made clothes, being "loved everywhere we go," and—perhaps most accurately—taking "all kinds of pills that give us all kinds of thrills." But "the thrill we've never known," they qualify, "is the thrill that'll getcha when you get your picture / on the cover of the Rolling Stone." It was a more innocent time I guess, and the trick worked. The song became the self-fulfilling prophesy and later that year, Dr. Hook appeared—in demented cartoon caricature—right where they'd hoped to end up.
Then the trouble began. British radio refused to play "Cover of the Rolling Stone," seeing it as the commercial suck-up that it was. The band failed to come up with a successful follow-up single. Between their two aptly-titled albums Belly Up! and Bankrupt, Dr. Hook would in fact declare bankruptcy, lose a founding member, and languish in self-pitying obscurity. It is in these grim lowlands that the generically titled Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show: Live finds them setting up camp, railing from onstage against their irrelevancy and low estate to a room that is—appropriately—empty, filled only with a mute film crew for the German television show Der Musikladen. Most concert films celebrate bands at the height of their powers, depicting their massive stadium tours, their virtuousic skill, their almost shamanic sway over adoring audiences. Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show: Live shows the opposite in merciless, sweaty close-up.
It's also, in the bargain, a quasi-documentary on the hazards of excessive drug use, although what drugs exactly Dr. Hook (every member of Dr. Hook) was on during the taping is up for debate. Lotsa booze, I was told by the first person who clued me in to this DVD and implored me to seek it out. Grass and hash, laughed our drummer Travis when we watched it a year later. Mushrooms, insisted my friends in the band Ladyhawk when they stayed over at Travis's house and we forced them to watch it. Cocaine, said the fourth group of people I forced to watch it. Pills, said the tenth. The only thing I can say for sure is that whatever they were on—and in whatever combination—they were on a lot of it! So much that things like pitch, tempo, judgment about what to say and what to play, sense of where one is in space and time, and understanding of what is actually happening are all noticeably impaired. There are moments of the worst playing I have ever heard in my life. There are also, and this is the key thing, moments of some of the most sublimely brilliant playing I have ever heard. Not just happy accidents and drunken bravado, but actual tightness and accuracy. These moments flicker like a camera coming in and out of focus, and when they arrive they practically burn through the screen. They bring a ten-thousand-ton wave of sheer joy, joy when all is lost, joy in music all by itself, in the act of playing music when there's no reason left to play it, joy in music stripped of any other motivation than as play.
The other thing that's fascinating about Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show: Live is that, in a way, it's as much a narrative feature as it is a live document. Over the course of the set, the characters become gradually more defined. Finally, slowly, a villain emerges, a villain who is both narratively satisfying and actually scary, like a villain should be. More on him later.
Like the Bible, Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show: Live begins with darkness. Then, you hear some intoxicated mumbling:
"Get…Okay…Yeah. That's it! Hit it!"
"Ohhhhhh! This is it? It's on?"
An image of the band fades in. A drummer sits at the back of the stage, hidden for the moment. To his left are a long-haired rhythm guitarist and a long-haired keyboardist. To his right are a long-haired bassist and a long-haired lead guitarist, the second partially obscured behind a high pedal-steel station. At the front of the stage are the two lead singers of Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, Ray Sawyer and Dennis Locorriere.
Dr. Hook wasn't named after Ray Sawyer, but he looks like it could have been. With his eyepatch (a memento from a near-fatal 1967 car accident) and battered straw hat, there's something of the pirate and something of the raving hillbilly about him. There's also something of the gigolo; though Sawyer isn't particularly attractive, he's often inappropriately sexual. He's wearing a patchy and completely faded Western shirt that is hanging open halfway down his chest, and he has a habit of drooping the shirt off one bare shoulder and looking flirtatiously back at the audience like an aged stripper. In some ways, Sawyer's moves and attitude are taken from the same lead-singer handbook that Mick Jagger and Iggy Pop must have studied, but when the older and less androgynous Sawyer—with his handlebar mustache and full chest of grayish-looking hair—does the same routine there's something off-putting, even disturbing, about it.
Dennis Locorriere, the other singer, is a chubby, bearish man, a dirty-looking beard crawling up his cheeks, an Ovation acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder, and a baggy ivy-green corduroy shirt hanging, sack-like, over a worn-out pair of jeans. Even at the start of his performance, before anyone has even exerted themselves in playing anything, there's a sheen of sweat across Locorriere's forehead and his sunken eye-sockets, making him look distinctly unwell. Despite this, he's got a boyish, almost cuddly quality, like a teddy bear someone left in the back of a garage until it became tattered and covered in dust and grime.
Billy Francis gives a bloodcurdling shriek. Things are starting to get off track.
"Hullo!" Locorriere greets the nonexistent audience in his Jersey rasp, "We're….Oh sh…."
Sawyer helpfully interrupts, "Do the….Do the one that they've been hearing on the radio." To emphasize the word "radio," he slaps his left ear.
Locorriere gets the cue, and addresses the cameras in a weary monotone, "We're gonna do a song that you heard on the radio a long time ago and that you probably got very very sick of and we're sorry."
With that, Sawyer makes an exaggerated version of an orchestra conductor's hand motions at the band and they lurch into "Sylvia's Mother," their first single, released three years earlier. They immediately speed the tempo up clumsily, and then almost as immediately slow the tempo back down. There's a woozy pedal steel off in the background, and we get a shot of their keyboardist Billy Francis, a longhaired beanpole with a tightly tucked-in shirt and a droopy mustache, playing a cheesy harpichord-sounding synth as Locorriere and Sawyer loudly and wordlessly yowl off camera.
Then the camera cuts back to Locorriere and the first amazing thing in Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show: Live happens—Locorriere opens his mouth and he sounds great! There's a scraped-out world-weary catch in his voice, and a likeable sweetness too. You feel it.
It starts to seem like the awkward start to the set was just an aberration and the band is now settling in. Then, right as they build back up into iteration two of the rousing "Please Mrs. Avery" chorus, something else happens. Sawyer suddenly looks distressed. He urgently motions for the band to stop playing, and grabs Locorriere by the side of the head. "Wait a minute, wait a minute, Dennis, Dennis, we've been crying too much."
The arrangement crumbles and the band trails off. There is silence. Locorriere, staggering back and forth at the mic and apparently disoriented, agrees with Sawyer. "Yeah, you people have heard this song too much, too much. We don't wanna do it no more." He tries to elaborate, but before he can continue Sawyer has seized the mic and cued the band into an entirely different song, the funky "Marie Laveaux." Sawyer spastically waves his hands in front of his face and growls like a bear. In the background, Billy Francis does a delicate introverted shimmy before erupting into a bloodcurdling shriek. Locorriere has taken his acoustic guitar off and switched to electric. He hits a rhythmic guitar stab at the exactly perfect moment and leans into the line for an another exactly perfect vocal line hit right on time: "Another man done gone!"
"Marie Laveaux" is kind of a microcosm of everything that's wonderful about Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show: Live—specifically, the band's ability to veer from incredible to horrendous so quickly. The song chugs along funkily, a kind of Dr.-John-meets-Captain-Beefheart groove with an entertaining lead vocal cameo from the floppy, muppetlike Billy Francis. Everything feels great. Then, midway through, as Sawyer is singing the line, "I'm getting ready for my wedding day," the mic slips out of his hands and hits the stage with an awkward plop! while Sawyer stands there stunned and gazing off into space, as if a massive shock just jolted through his body. Shortly afterwards, Billy Francis does the bloodcurdling shriek so loud and for so long that his voice pinches painfully and he doubles over like someone punched him in the gut. Things are starting to get off track.
At the same moment, we notice that Locorriere has thrown off his electric guitar and is now standing directly behind bassist Jance Garfat. In fact he's hugging tightly against Garfat and reaching around his body to play a lightning-fast solo on Garfat's bass. Garfat stands stock still with his head bowed towards the stage, like a little boy who is being inappropriately touched. Sawyer has meanwhile grabbed a stray cowbell and is whacking it arhythmically but, performance-wise, we're back in the realm of the incredible. Locorriere plays Garfat's bass faster and faster, and he's now frantically kicking out his back legs like a hillbilly tapdancer. It's goofy—oddly homoerotic, and yet somehow hilariously thrilling and impressive—but it deflates almost instantly. Locorriere abandons the bass but the drummer keeps playing as if he didn't notice, launching into a vapid, meandering drum solo as Locorriere, Sawyer, and Billy Francis dance aimlessly and moronically around the stage like the dwarves in the famous Spinal Tap "Stonehenge" scene. A microphone stand totters and falls into the nonexistent "audience."
And then, out of nowhere, the song gets good again, building into a super-funky vamp that goes faster and faster and faster and then…slower, sloppier. Sawyer has charged to the center of the stage and lifted his arms wide apart like a kind of drunk and disoriented Jesus. He's perturbed by something, and starts shouting at the band, who seem confused and try to cut into a final end "stinger" to the song. This is apparently not what Sawyer wants them to do, so he waves his hands wildly for the musicians to stop, which some of them do and some don't. In the confusion, their mulleted drummer John Wolters leaps off his stool for a massive last cymbal crash but Sawyer frantically gestures for him not to do it so he suddenly leaps backwards again, bringing the song to an anticlimactic sort of ending.
Except it's not the ending, because Locorriere is still playing. He's grabbed Garfat's bass and shoved a harmonica into his mouth and is trying to hit some high-up-on-the-neck note which he keeps getting wrong. The lead guitarist, in the back, stands at his pedal steel station and stares darkly at Locorriere, seemingly annoyed. The band begs Locorriere to stop but he keeps saying, "I got it! I got it!" and giggling to himself. They indulge him and, when he finally gets his note, they all jump back into the song right on time and do the stinger quite well, even vaguely triumphantly.
At this point, there's some muted applause from the crew in the room. Staggering back up to the mic, Locorriere responds to the scattered applause and semi-sarcastically addresses the TV audience at home, whoever they may be: "Oh, oh thank you, thank you. Oh, thank you. We know that you're sitting at home saying, ‘Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you.'"
There's a pervasive sense of despair to Locorriere's stage banter. Introducing an old single of theirs, he warns, "We're gonna do a song that we released in the United States and everybody said, ‘NO GOOD!‘" Describing their third and most recent album, Locorriere says, "It's called Belly Up!, and it's been out about two years and nobody knows about it yet." You get a sense that Locorriere is talking this way because 1) he's drunk/stoned/tripping/whatever, 2) in his mind he's addressing a miniscule and only theoretical night-owl audience who might not even speak English, and 3) basically he has given up hope in his own band. But the wonderful and almost miraculous thing about Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show: Live is that the band's performance is anything but despairing and hopeless. In fact, there's something ecstatic about just about every second of every song. Almost everyone in the band is beaming, carefree, laughing, exchanging happy glances with each other. And there is something incredibly sweet and loving about the way Sawyer and Locorriere interact. Sawyer repeatedly strokes Locorriere's hair and face throughout the performance. When Sawyer raises his hand to point at the audience challengingly Locorriere playfully reaches out and shoves his hand down, like an old wife admonishing her husband not to point. At one moment in the set, Locorriere charges woozily towards Sawyer and envelops him in a long bear-hug. When he pulls away, you see Sawyer looking down shyly at his feet, beaming. It's almost as if there isn't even an audience at all. It's as if, now that they're convinced that nobody in Europe and possibly in the world cares about them anymore except for each other, they've been set free.
"Excuse us," Locorriere informs the film crew, "some of us are puking."
Introducing their third song, Locorriere tells the cameras, "Ray is gonna yodel. In the United States whenever Ray yodels everybody says, 'GET OUTTA HERE!' But maybe here they'll like him to yodel." Very sincerely, he adds, "He yodels his ass off, man," and pinches his forefinger and thumb in front of his face like a maître d' giving you the inside tip about some particularly refined delicacy. And Sawyer's yodel is in fact quite impressive, especially when he shifts into the what Locorriere describes as "The triple yodel…the hardest yodel in the whole world and I ain't kidding, and Ray is gonna do it, unprotected."
It's during "Yodel" that you realize: these guys aren't all bullshit and fucking around and getting super high before a TV appearance—though that is all clearly very important to them—they also actually love and deeply care about music. And they're also excellent musicians. The sneaky thing about Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show: Live is that no matter how sour and chaotic and sloppy it gets there's something consistently musical about it, something both sincere and fundamentally unfakeable.
"We have a new single that will be released any minute," Locorriere tells the Musikladen audience, "and we don't know it, but we're gonna play it anyway. We're not ashamed of it! What key is it in? I forget everything about this song." In the break after the song ends, someone from the film crew, clearly noticing the sickly gloss of sweat all over Locorriere's face, helpfully tosses a towel at the band from the darkness offstage. Sawyer jumps on it as metaphor: "Watch out, he's fixin' to throw in the towel!" and immediately grabs the towel and throws it back, which prompts another thrown towel, and for a moment we watch this strange improvised game of Sawyer hurling fresh white towels into a darkness that hurls them back. By the end of the next song (the aforementioned "no good" single "Carry Me, Carrie," which is truly not very good), the band has decided not to hurl the towels and is actively asking for them. "Excuse us," Locorriere informs the film crew, "some of us are puking." He is handed a towel which he promptly retches into before casually tossing it over his right shoulder, large globs of unidentifiable white matter suddenly clinging to his beard.
Who are these strange Germans in the dark, dispensing towels? What were the crew like, on that evening in 1974? What did they think of the band? Were Dr. Hook among friends that day, or were they deeply annoying to a professional European film unit who were presumably taking their jobs more seriously? Was this an amicable performance, or an antagonistic one? We almost never see the actual crew of Musikladen, and when we do see them it's only incidentally: a guy in a green hooded sweatshirt quickly propping a fallen mic stand back up, a lanky still photographer briefly glimpsed standing in the darkness, a disembodied hand extending a fresh puke towel. How big was the studio? Was it tiny? Was it cavernous? How many people were there? Three? Twenty? The more I watch the DVD and the more I repeat these questions to myself, the more mysterious I've let the whole thing become in my mind, until the Musikladen stage, lit by white light but surrounded by an otherwise dark and apparently mostly vacant studio, feels like a tiny playroom suspended in an otherwise giant and black and void-like mystery space.
I remember one afternoon I spent shut in my bedroom with my best friend when I was a little kid. My parents were downstairs ignoring us, and there was nothing to do, so we took out a boombox and filled all of Side A of a Certron cassette with a kind of radio-play that we improvised on the spot. The play flowed in a stream-of-consciousness way. We would make up characters, and the characters would slowly be refined and altered and eventually discarded as the play went on. Scenarios would be completely abandoned midstream and we'd pick up another plotline, and then that plotline would be abandoned but one character from it would stay on, walking into another plotline like it was another room, until the actual bedroom we were in started to fade away and recede and we were actually living inside this radio-play, sloughing off and adopting new personalities and inhabiting imaginary shifting and melting dream-spaces, walking across the ribbon of that slowly unspooling cassette as it dumbly just kept recording, living and floating along this stream-of-consciousness that we both shared. As an adult, I've repeatedly been possessed by an almost painfully intense fantasy of recovering that lost tape, like it's some kind of Rosetta Stone to everything I ever liked or wanted out of art or performing. We were two little kids making something just to kill time, being goofy, shouting and jumping around and pontificating behind a closed door, with no thought in our heads about an audience or a finished product and certainly no thought of outside appreciation or of exposure or fame of any kind. We were making something, but mostly we were playing, and in that playing the entire world disappeared and we forgot ourselves. In a way, it's the most creatively alive I've ever felt, and it's something I've chased after in some form or another in every recording session I've ever attended or every live show I've ever done. When I was at my very best as an artist, I wasn't looking for prestige or adulation or money or stability, I was playing, and I didn't care what people thought because they were just an abstraction—like some German insomniac TV viewer in 1974 or some still photographer whose name you forgot because you're too stoned—and the time just flew by, just disappeared, and I don't know where it went. At the heart of it, this is what I find deeply beautiful and touching about Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show: Live, and essentially it's why I really do like it more than better movies by better directors about better bands. In those movies, it's almost impossible to escape artifice, self-importance, the desire for prestige. Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show: Live is completely unguarded, and there is something fresh and childlike in that unguardedness. Whatever hopelessness or despair or inter-member strife Dr. Hook was feeling on that night in 1974, somehow out of luck or skill they managed to leave it behind for 45 minutes and enter into an enchanted space of pure play.
But now's the time to talk about inter-member strife, because it's after the relative disaster of "Carry Me, Carrie" that the narrative of Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show: Live starts to crystallize and a villain scuttles his way into the foreground.
We've seen him previously, in fact we noticed him a couple times, and he made us distinctly uncomfortable. At first, we just noticed that, as the rest of the band were laughing and carrying on and exchanging loving glances, there was a guy in the back who was conspicuously never laughing or smiling but was instead glowering darkly. When we got a better look at him, we realized that he looked really weird, unnaturally tall and skeleton-thin, with skin-tight highwater army pants and a sheer wife-beater that clung with unnerving snugness to a bony sunken chest, his body like a walking-stick insect atop which was set a head whose darkly sour expression, black beard scruff, and voluminously flowing dark curls suggested an evil wizard out of Tolkein or an understudy for Charles Manson. "This is George," Locorriere tells the Musikladen crew and the home viewers, before hurrying out of George's way as if he's scared to death of getting too close to him. George Cummings, the group's lead guitarist and pedal steel player, slowly walks from the high pedal steel station he's been hiding behind and proceeds to the front of the stage, his head lowered like an executioner.
George positions himself before Locorriere's vocal mic and there's a long pause as, from his right pocket, he produces a large red handkerchief. Using the handkerchief, he slowly and fastidiously wipes the mic Locorriere has been singing into. The band has launched into a menacing groove, with Wolters playing a quarternote kick drum beat and Sawyer threateningly scraping a cabasa. After he has finished hand-cleaning the mic, George drapes the handkerchief over it, where it hangs like a Halloween ghost decoration. It will become more and more clear as the set goes on that the relationship between George Cummings and the rest of the band has recently come under some kind of strain. In fact, within a year, Cummings will quit Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, citing "personal and musical differences." All throughout the show he hasn't laughed or smiled or even looked at anyone else in the band, and you get a sense that they might have even fought immediately before the taping. In any case, the message of George's eccentric handkerchief-draping is clear. As with the giant pedal steel station he hides behind in his stage-left corner, the handkerchief is a barricade between him and the rest of the group. He's differentiating himself from their behavior, making a public issue of their "germs," holding himself apart.
I can only guess what George's beef with Dr. Hook might have been. The most obvious guess would be that he's embarrassed by their drunken and drugged carrying-on, but I don't think that's it; George also acts like he's under the influence, and, a couple of times, I noticed him sneaking swigs from a large flask secreted in the back pocket of his army pants. Beyond that, who knows? George's own explanation of "personal and musical differences" actually feels the most apt. Musically, there is something subtly but undeniably out of place about George's pedal-steel work; while the rest of the band choogles along good-naturedly, it oozes a malign, swampy dread. His playing is consistently very loud, as if he's trying to overpower his band-mates. Even his look feels different; although he's got the requisite beard and long hair, George feels like a darker kind of hippie. He's the Altamont to their Woodstock. The rest of the group barely look at him, and he hardly seems to make eye contact with either them or the cameras, instead fixing his gaze at some unspecified point far off in the endless black of the studio. Now that it's time for George's big lead vocal moment, he picks the dirt out from under his fingernails, adjusts the mic-stand to his considerable height, and then links his arms behind his back like the hanged man in a deck of Tarot cards. Uttering a deep rattling moan that could either be of pleasure or dread or some squirmy combination of both, he buries his face in the handkerchief he's brought along to protect himself from Locorriere's germs.
Appropriately, the song George is about to sing deals explicitly with the subject of germs and viruses and the terror of being infected. It's called "Penicillin Penny" and, with it, the good-natured, generous feeling of Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show: Live comes under its first threat, a threat from which it takes the band several songs to recover.
As with many of the tunes the band has performed in this set—songs like "Carrie Me, Carrie" and "Marie Laveaux"— "Penicillin Penny" is a kind of character study. But where the former is a clumsy love hymn from a good-hearted drunk and the latter is a hat-tip to New Orleans' legendary voodoo priestess, "Penicillin Penny" is more grotesque, a man's paranoid nightmare vision of a sexually forward woman. George leans into the mic and, in a disquieting mumble-moan that sounds slightly muffled, maybe because of the handkerchief, he introduces the title character. "Penicillin Penny, she's the queen of the Sunset Strip," he starts, chanting in a kind of low monotone. At the end of the first line, as if we didn't get the point, he ad-libs a drawn out and lascivious "Str-i-i-i-ppin'…"
Up until now there has been a sweetness to Dr. Hook's set, but there is something about "Penicillin Penny" that feels mean-spirited, even hateful. In "Cover of the Rolling Stone" Dr. Hook celebrate male promiscuity, boasting about their "little blue-eyed teenage groupies who do everything we say;" by contrast, "Penicillin Penny" portrays a promiscuous woman, with the narrator smirking as he watches her slow degradation and downfall, from assignations in the backseat of a Cadillac to the filthy "floors of men's room bars." The disgust with which the narrator views the title character verges on misogyny, or even misanthropy—an angry hatred not just of women but of the body itself. The innocence of the earlier part of the set has burned away with the arrival of George and "Penicillin Penny," and things are getting ugly. As if to acknowledge this shift, the band alter their playing significantly. There's an odd sense of seriousness all of a sudden—the band even tones down their boyish antics, as if they're afraid of a reprisal from their new guest singer.
After the first two verses of "Penicillin Penny," George retreats to his corner and wrenches out a quick, violent solo from behind his pedal steel station. The solo over, he returns to the front of the stage, to his mic, to his handkerchief. He leans in close, and as he leans in the camera pulls towards his face as he mutters an ominous "Mmmmmmmmboooooogie…" and launches back into the lyrics of verse three:
She's Penicillin Penny,
and if you ever see her passing through,
you'd better run into your house
before she stops and lays a little on you.
By this point, the camera has pulled in so close to George's face that it takes up the entire screen. George's mouth is hidden behind the red handkerchief, so when his voice comes out it sounds weirdly disembodied, like it was piped in from somewhere else. In spite of the macro close-up, his face barely seems to move. He stands there, stone-still, filling the screen, a frozen giant, so massive you can see every pore in his nose. His eyes, though, are hidden in deep shadow. The camera lingers on this close-up as the disembodied words flow out, holding the shot for so long that for a while it becomes abstracted and you almost forget you're looking at a face. You get the illusion instead that you're peering into two deep caves burrowed into the pale side of an ancient cliff, with overgrown black vines shrouding the cave on either side, and with a booming voice off in the distance, or maybe it's thunder, breaking against itself, or maybe the voice is coming from the miles and miles of endlessness deep inside, a voice of someone thousands of feet below the earth's surface, a damp, earthy voice, a voice like mud or like dirt or like black grease, intoning "Mmmmmboooooogie…."
The producers of Musikladen appear to have chosen "Penicillin Penny" as the song in which to get the most experimental with their editing technique; up until this point the editing has been mostly invisible, consisting of conventional long-shots with occasional cuts to different parts of the action, but in "Penicillin Penny" there's a switch to a deliberately disorienting pattern of very tight shots that alternate quickly and rhythmically. As the band breaks down to just a bare, propulsive beat, we get a close-up of Wolters' drumsticks cracking against the hi-hat, then Sawyer shaking one tambourine inside of another tambourine, George with his mouth pressed up to the red handkerchief, moaning, "Oh God…" and tilting his head far back into the blackness of the studio, Billy Francis rubbing the cabasa he picked up from Sawyer. Even the drum kit has dropped out by this point and the only music onstage consists of hand percussion and Wolters beating out a hi-hat pattern while George incants a long, repetitive ad-lib:
I don't need no dose.
Don't want no dose.
I don't need no dose.
I can't use no dose.
Don't you slip me no dose.
Don't you give me no dose.
I don't want no dose.
I don't deserve no dose.
I don't deserve no dose.
Won't you doctor my dose?
Doctor my dose.
Doctor my dose.
Doctor my dose.
Doctor my dose.
Doctor my dose.
Doctor my dose.
Doctor my dose.
Doctor my dose.
Doctor my dose.
As George repeats the words "Doctor my dose" over and over, he slowly alters them, at first leaving the "s" off of "dose" so that it sounds like "doe" and then slipping into a kind of grotesque deathbed imitation, all gurgles and wheezes and gasps for air. The camera cuts jarringly back and forth between close-ups of his expressionless face and the rattling percussion. Soon George's words are completely abstracted; it's all just agonized choking and sputtering. Then all of a sudden he screams, "DON'T GIVE ME NO CLAP!", tears the handkerchief from the mic, whirls around, and runs to the corner of the stage as the Musikladen cameras pull back into a long shot and the band tears back in, rocking out again. The shot returns to George—he is hunched over his pedal steel station now, holding the handkerchief in his right hand. He has clearly put something inside the handkerchief to weight it, and is now swinging it around in a wide arc. As the camera zooms in quickly, he whips the handkerchief violently up and whomps it into the strings of his pedal steel, as if he's beating an animal. He keeps repeatedly whipping the steel, wildly, angrily, licking his lips, shouting inaudibly at the rest of the band and swinging the handkerchief over his shoulder, until they build to a noisily ugly crescendo and then stop—suddenly, surprisingly. The song is over and, instead of their customary laughs and banter, they are silent.
Click here to continue reading Part Two of "'Dennis, We've Been Crying Too Much': Dr. Hook and the Untold Story of the Best Rock Movie Ever Made"
Will Sheff is the songwriter and lead singer for Okkervil River. This essay was condensed from an original version published on his web site, willsheff.com.