I've chased down old Dr. Hook records here and there over the past five or six years, loving this live DVD the way I do and looking forward to hearing some of these great songs with some studio magic sprinkled over them, but what I've found has usually been a bit disappointing. I'm starting to conclude, sadly, that Dr. Hook were a band you had to see live to truly get it. This is more common than you'd think; every musician knows an amazing fellow band who never quite captured their brilliance on tape. Sometimes, even capturing the energy of a band on a concert recording can be tricky—I have to admit that I've fallen asleep while watching concert films by such all-time greats as Led Zeppelin and The Who. But that's another amazing thing about Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show: Live—somehow the intimacy of their black studio dream-space and the tight close-up of their cameras and the pressurelessness of their nonexistent audience helped perfectly express the energy of this particular band on this particular night, to the point where you feel like you're personally onstage in the midst of this crazy racing-around, this weird combination of hillbilly fervor and bar-band bravado and stoner idiocy and Marx Brothers archarchist chaos. No other concert film feels, to me, quite so intimate. I get a contact high just watching it.
In their lyrics as well as in their clothes and attitude, Dr. Hook could be said to embody the first wilt of the early-70s counterculture—that time when young people started crossing over into their 30s, when some hippies started going to seed, when the vibes were just starting to get weird, when the very earliest hints of malaise had started to creep in. This, at bottom, is Dr. Hook's milieu. By this point in the set they've already tackled drug dealers, VD-ridden free-love casualties, and dirtbag roadies, and now, on "Freakin' at the Freakers' Ball," it's time for the band to conjure up the seedy ambience of a key party. This also happens to be one of those moments where the band flickers from enervated and sloppy back to amazing again. After a mess of an intro, Locorriere snaps into a cute little country groove, the band locks in behind him, and Sawyer stops doing his strange and perverse dance routine and jumps on a nice harmony. They're playing and singing great, and even George, his animus temporarily set aside, takes a pleasant and tuneful little steel solo.
Coming two songs later, you could argue that "Freakin' at the Freakers' Ball" is the antithesis to—even the antidote for—"Penicillin Penny." Though robed in rude comedy, this is actually a sweet song whose underlying message is one of universal acceptance. "Well, there's gonna be a Freakers' Ball / tonight at the Freakers' Hall," Locorriere informs us, before issuing the promised singing invitation: "you know, you're invited / one and all." At the Freakers' Ball, we're told, everyone is not only welcome but they all get along; not only are "all the straights…swingin' with the funkies," but "the FBI is dancin' with the junkies." Penicillin Penny would not only be accepted and welcomed at the Freakers' Ball, she'd be viewed as positively boring, surrounded on all sides by "the fags and the dykes…boogieing together, the leather freaks…dressed in all kinds of leather," and, of course, "the greatest of the sadists and the masochists too / screamin,' ‘Please hit me and I'll hit you!'" As the list goes on, it gets more and more outrageously all-encompassing. We get "brother-on-sister," "son-on-mother," and are told that "everybody is ballin' in batches / pyromaniacs striking matches." Finally, a hilarious topper arrives with the couplet "Black ones, white ones, yellow ones, red ones. / Necrophiliacs looking for dead ones." In almost every line there's a reference to people getting together, embracing, to a communion of sex or love; "everybody is kissing each other" as they ball in batches, we're promised that "I'll kiss yours if you kiss mine," and the overall image is of every single person in the Freakers' Hall, no matter how weird and twisted and bizarre, collapsing in a big loving puddle of humanity, their differences both completely immaterial and yet somehow defining and empowering. Though wrapped in the imagery of a dirty joke, this idea—that it's okay to be different, even different in a way that people might loathe or fear, and that no matter how different we are there is a way we can try to love each other—happens to be one of the most beautiful ideas in the world, an idea that embodies what was most exciting and most powerful about the energy of the 1960s, the energy that Dr. Hook crawled out of, rank with pot-smoke, eyes glassy with distant visions, bearded and patchy, "smear[ed] up with butter," arms akimbo in a drunken Jesus windmill on a stage where the audience has long since forsaken them.
Across the world in 1974, rock bands are starting to take synthesizer solos. They are starting to wear capes.
Even though they're hippies, maybe as hippie as hippie can get, you could say there's also something punk rock about Dr. Hook on this night—though not for long. Because by the time punk rock actually breaks, some three short years from now, Dr. Hook will have gotten their audience back and then some. They will be cranking out insipid soft-disco ballads like "When You're in Love with a Beautiful Woman" for ex-hippies who have become even older, even more lost, confused, directionless. Dr. Hook will no longer be "belly up," and they will no longer be bankrupt either. But they will have lost time and they will have lost bandmembers and they will have lost something else too. Tonight though, they possess it fully. It is only theirs. Across the world in 1974, rock bands are starting to take synthesizer solos. They are starting to wear capes. They are just plugging in their smoke machines. Prog-Rock, Jazz-Rock, Soft Rock, everything that the punks will try to tear down and unseat is, at this moment in time, just starting to become entrenched. This is the year the Captain marries Tenille. This is the year Lindsey Buckingam and Stevie Nicks join Fleetwood Mac. This is the year ABBA wins the Eurovision song contest with "Waterloo," their first international number-one single. This is the year Yes will sell out two nights at Madison Square Garden without placing a single ad. But there are no capes onstage tonight, no feathered hair, no 12-minute solos. There are just seven people who— to varying degrees—don't give a shit. Soon they will become smooth, professional, and monied. But tonight they don't give a shit, in the most beautiful and pure way possible.
They wrap up the song, and Locorriere decides to strum a dumb kind of suspended chord at the end. It really doesn't work, so he responds by strumming it again and again, like a bad joke whose punchline you repeat to be annoying. Sawyer giggles and admiringly says, "Man, that's…that's terrible!"
Then there is another iris fade and then we get the last song, where all of the threads of the set—musical, personal, thematic—converge and hit their crisis.
"We begged and we begged and we pleaded. Right? And we told em, ‘Please. Please. We just, all we ever wanted to do was be on the cover. Of a magazine!' And we begged and we begged and they finally did it!" At this line Locorriere, who is pushed up into the mic, eyes heavy-lidded, gives a juvenile snicker, before leaning back to strum his guitar and discovering that, yet again, it isn't in tune. Sawyer, standing right next to him and waiting to start the song, is getting visibly impatient. He responds to Locorriere's umpteenth "That's terrible!" with, "They do get out of tune you know." Stalling for time, Locorriere continues:
"We wasn't on the cover of, ah, Newsweek, or National Geographic…"
"Time," Sawyer chimes in.
"Time. None of them."
"Or Life, but…Penthouse? No! Hah-ha! But we did make one, and then they tried to kill us." Locorriere strums the out-of-tune guitar for punctuation.
"They might kill us again after you play this," says Sawyer, and then tries to block out his annoyance at all the befuddled guitar-tuning happening around him, closing his eyes in concentration and raising his hands up on either side of his face in a frozen jazz-hands pose, ready to rock. Wolters comes in with a four-on-the-floor kick intro, the band starts in, and it immediately becomes clear they're still horrendously out-of-tune.
At this, Sawyer storms off the stage. Locorriere comes running after him like a chastised little boy chasing after his disappointed dad. "I got it! I'm sorry! I got it!" Just as he's saying this, in what feels like a minor miracle, the band suddenly tightens up and sounds like a real band again, jumping into a country rock vamp with a tidy electric lick at the top. Sawyer wheels around and stares Locorriere right in the face darkly, angrily. He advances towards him as Locorriere starts retreating, scrambling backwards to his own mic, going, "I…Ahh…" Sawyer keeps stalking towards him, his face cold and angry, until, exactly on cue, he jumps into the first line of the song, turning away from Locorriere to face the cameras, waving a hand in the air, singing a line that, at this moment in time, they might have felt was mocking them:
Well, we're big rock singers!
We've got golden fingers
and we're loved everywhere we go.
This, of course, is Dr. Hook's blessing and their curse, their big hit and the song that got them banned from UK radio—"Cover of the Rolling Stone." At the words "everywhere we go," the melody line takes a joyous leap up a full octave. Sawyer, his voice cracking at the leap, chooses this moment to yank his shirt aside to expose his left nipple, poking it towards the cameras and tilting his head back flirtatiously. In so doing, he cracks himself up and his bad mood seems to evaporate instantaneously. With his one good eye, he shoots a quick, amused, forgiving glance in Locorriere's direction. He leans into Locorriere's mic for the next harmony, "We take all kinda pills that give us all kinda thrills…" and we see that Locorriere is also chucking a broad and relieved laugh. In fact, they're both laughing so much that they've having difficulty getting the lyrics out. At the next octave leap—the line "the thrill we've never known"—Sawyer shoots his hand in the air and then sweeps his arm out expansively, as if gesturing towards some broad, undiscovered vista. The camera cuts to a shimmying Billy Francis and then back to the team of Sawyer and Locorriere, singing about "the thrill that'll getcha when you get your picture / on the cover of the Rolling Stone." There follows a short call-and-response between Sawyer and the band about what he'll do when he gets his picture on the magazine's cover (stare at it, buy "five copies for my mother," etc…), during which Sawyer does one of his signature little struts around the stage, this time with his entire left shoulder and arm and most of his chest exposed because Locorriere has playfully pulled his shirt half off.
Crawling further under his pedal steel, George points a finger at Locorriere and says something off-mic that sounds like, "I'm coming after you."
This little litany finished, the band hit the last line of the chorus: "Gonna see my smiling face on the cover of the Rolling Stone," stringing out the last "Stoooooooooooooone" in a long protracted harmony that is wincingly out-of-tune. Things are getting bad again. Locorriere suddenly goes off on an ad-libbed spoken tangent, turning to the cameras and saying, "We figured if one of us had a lot of sex, that they would stick us on the cover of anything, man, anything, anything…" There is an awkward lull, as if the band doesn't quite know what to do here. Many of them just stop playing. The song has almost completely halted in its tracks by this point, aside from Billy Francis noodling aimlessly on his keyboard and Wolters tapping out a kind of dumb parody of a Jazz hi-hat pattern. The camera pulls back. Sawyer is dancing and strutting cluelessly, as if he's in his own world. His awkward tirade over, Locorriere is weaving back and forth. There is a stagnant feeling onstage. Finally, Sawyer snaps out of it. "No!" he shouts decisively. "That ain't gonna work." Beckoning to the pedal steel station on stage left, he calls out, "Come here, George. Come up here and do it."
High-stepping like a giant spider, George makes his way from behind his steels and walks to the front of the stage. Again, he pulls the great red handkerchief from his right-hand pocket. Locorriere has had it with the handkerchief, and he begs George not to use it. Glancing coolly at him, George responds simply, "Gotta have the handkerchief." He drapes it and then does his lean-in and stand-stock-still thing, singing the lines, "I got a freaky old lady / name of cocaine Katie / who em-broi-drers all my jeans. / I got my poor old grey-haired daddy / driving my limousine." As George is singing, Sawyer comes up behind him and lightly picks up strands of his long hair, fanning it out for a second in a moment reminiscent of a "rabbit ears" family photo. You see Locorriere glance at Sawyer and laugh.
When George's verse is finished, he pulls the handkerchief back off the mic and returns to his corner. Calmly, he straps on a giant hollowbody electric guitar, and then plugs it in. In the foreground, Locorriere and Sawyer are smiling and giggling as usual, singing "Gonna see my smiling face / on the cover of the Rolling Stone." As they sing the long drawn-out "Stoooooone" this time, George strikes a dissonant guitar chord and then turns to his guitar amp and rolls the volume knob all the way up. His amp immediately squeals into a high, painful feedback note. It's the loudest thing onstage, but Locorriere and Sawyer haven't really noticed yet. Behind them, John Wolters is cooking away on the drums, bobbing his head happily. Then he realizes something's wrong. He turns towards the direction of the screaming feedback, but he can't see past George's giant guitar amp. Elswit has noticed now too. He's staring at George dubiously. As the feedback grows louder and louder, George rears back. At this moment, Locorriere notices what's happening. Again he steps away from George's corner of the stage, as if afraid of him. He grabs Sawyer by the shoulder, precisely at the moment that George strikes a giant, nasty distorted guitar chord and then throws his arm up in the air, jumping backwards angrily. Sawyer spins around. Everyone is looking at George now, and the cameraman realizes what's happening and zooms in on him too, just in time to see George hunker down behind his pedal steel station, lurking there like some Grimm-Brothers troll beneath a bridge.
The music stops completely, and for a long suspended lull there is nothing happening onstage; the only sound we hear is George's torn, jagged feedback squall hanging unpleasantly in the air. Uncharacteristically, Locorriere tries to take control of the situation. He walks towards George and sternly says, "No! Not on television!" Helplessly, he turns to Sawyer, who has now come over to George's side of the stage as well. "Not on television," he mouths a second time. Wolters has abandoned his drum kit and is standing up, discussing the situation with Jance Garfat. George keeps the feedback ringing, jabbing the head of his guitar at Locorriere like a spear. At this point, Sawyer seems to give up. He grabs Locorriere hard by his arm and yanks him across the stage, leaving George at his station, where he punches the strings of his electric guitar with a clenched fist, making a loud whanging noise like someone smashing two steel poles together. "Take if OFF!" screams Locorriere, off-mic. The band stands around, wondering what to do. His distortion note having transformed into a low humming howl, George suspends himself on one leg before ducking back down and hiding below his steel, bent over like a troll again, his spine poking through his tight white wife-beater. He lifts his right hand and waves it dismissively at the two singers before clenching in into a fist and shaking it at them. Crawling further under his pedal steel, he points a finger at Locorriere and says something off-mic that sounds like, "I'm coming after you." The only sound onstage is George's guitar and it's as if the only people onstage are George and Locorriere, locked together in mutual antagonism. George seems so absorbed in the confrontation that he barely even notices when Sawyer impishly leaps off the stage, crossing the blackness of the studio floor to briefly sneak up behind him and play with his hair again before running away. His loud low hum hanging in the air, the rebelling guitarist pulls his flask from his back pocket and takes a quick pull off it. Then, with the flask in his right hand, he starts using it as a slide, scraping it across the guitar strings to unleash an angry spasm of noise. He crawls out from the far side of the pedal steel and, still hunched over at the knees, advances towards Locorriere and Sawyer. Concerned, the latter grabs his mic and backs away wildly.
His chaotic noise solo hitting a climax, George suddenly leaps into the air, throwing his hands up high above his head. All sound stops. The editors of Musikladen cut away from the wide shot of George suspended in the air and cut back in on a confusing blur; him rising, him falling.
Negativity and chaos and atonality and despair have already lost this round; brotherhood and love have won.
In utter silence, George thunks back onto the stage and for a second he wobbles around, disoriented. The effect, instead of being menacing, is surprisingly goofy. The entire band bursts into uproarious, howling laughter. George has lost. In a self-deprecating attempt to acknowledge this loss, he holds himself erect, puts one hand behind back, and bends into a low, theatrical, utterly dorky bow. It's the kind of thing you might picture a suburban dungeonmaster doing after a particularly epic D&D session. Sawyer is laughing so hard that he's holding his hands against the side of his head and the mic in his right hand is feeding back loudly. Vanquished, George turns his back and skulks into his corner.
It is at this moment that the rest of Dr. Hook saves the day, for Wolters has made the decision to sit back down at his drums, Rik Elswit sees him and plucks the root note of the song, and Locorriere, taking his bandmates' cue, starts strumming his acoustic. Elswit plays his nifty little country hook and then, in one of my favorite moments in the history of musicianship, the whole band quickly falls in line and the song starts right up again, almost as if nothing had happened. Still shaking with laughter, Sawyer and Locorriere jump back in on their next vocal line, and their eyes briefly meet with a can you believe that happened look. Sawyer leaps up the octave to his high note: "We got all the friends money can buy / so we never have to be alone." He leans in to Locorriere and lays a hand on the right side of his face, stroking his hair as they put their two heads together, Locorriere cracking up as he sings the line, "and we keep getting richer / but we can't get our picture / on the cover of the Rolling Stone." At this, George throws in a barb from the back of the stage: "That's 'cause you can't boogie!" Locorriere glances back angrily at him, but Sawyer is unreachable now. He laughs it off. The band builds up in energy. Locorriere screams and shouts. Sawyer struts. The whole band (but George), beaming, bellows, "Rolling Stone! Rolling Stone! On the cover of the Rolling Stone!" The camera pulls back into a triumphant wide shot. We leave them like that, as the fuzzy black iris closes up and seals them there, in 1974. In the background, you can tell that George has tried his noise bit again. He's rearing back. The guitar is squalling. Sawyer and Locorriere walk toward him. You hear some kind of studio banter, something that sounds like it could be "What the fuck was that?" But negativity and chaos and atonality and despair have already lost this round and brotherhood and love—briefly—have won.
The thing about Dr. Hook at the Medicine Show: Live—its banter, its chaos, its buffoonery—is that it may be all fake. One thing I didn't mention earlier about tracking down those Dr. Hook studio recordings is that they're actually full of banter like this. The studio version of "Cover of the Rolling Stone," in fact, starts with the following bit of chatter:
LOCORRIERE: Dahahaha-oh…I don't believe it.
SAWYER: Shuh…Dagh! Agh! Oh!
LOCORRIERE: Don't touch me. Hey Ray…Tell them who we are!"
Later in the same song, there is a deliberately awful guitar solo (presumably tongue-in-cheek and played by George) and then Sawyer sarcastically says, "Oh, that's beautiful," in much the same way that Sawyer and Locorriere repeatedly say "That's terrible!" in Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show: Live. When I first discovered this, I got depressed. I felt like it had all been an act, and that all the emotions that I'd felt—repeatedly—watching Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show: Live had all been coerced, manipulated out of me. Watching the DVD for what must have been the 20th time, I searched for signs of choreography. I noticed some slightly suspicious stuff. For example, in many of the occasions in which Sawyer jumps right on top of his next vocal line after a moment of complete chaos, I noticed that, during the chaos, he'd carefully grabbed his mic while no one was paying attention. When Locorriere launches into his awkward song-stopping monologue "We figured if one of us had a lot of sex" in "Cover of the Rolling Stone," I similarly noticed Sawyer leaning over and muttering something to him immediately before. A bit of lip-reading and rewinding revealed to me that he's saying "Tell them about the sex." But these moments were few and far between and even the "Tell them about the sex" moment is open to interpretation. Was the original plan for Locorriere to start rambling about sex and for the band to then awkwardly stop playing and Sawyer to finally say, "No, that ain't gonna work?" The opposite seems more likely, that the "Tell them about the sex" moment was intended to be something great—some long spoken ad-lib that Locorriere ended up miffing, or some ragtime piano solo that a drugged-out Billy Francis couldn't hack—and that the chaos we perceive at that moment, a chaos that certainly feels real, was real. These "real or not real" moments, once you start looking for them, end up adding an extra layer of intrigue to Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show: Live. For example, during Locorriere's memorable "some of us are puking" moment, it doesn't really seem like he's puking, per se. There's none of the protracted, difficult-to-watch full-body heaving we all know accompanies actual vomiting. On the other hand, there very definitely is a giant glob of something quite disgusting-looking in his beard.
I had a similar moment with my favorite live album of all time, Sam Cooke's Live at the Harlem Square Club, a sublime 1963 recording that for some is the holy grail of all live albums. Live at the Harlem Square Club is one of those works of art that you almost feel like you could use as proof of the existence of God. In it, Cooke weaves nearly all of his hit singles into a tight, driving set where long stretches of musical banter are almost indistinguishable from the songs and the audience starts to feel indistinguishable from the band. He calls on the audience to picture him standing at a lonely train station with a suitcase in his hand. He instructs them on how to moan along to "Chain Gang" and gives them a long, tender lecture about what to say to each other during a lovers' quarrel. He commands them to take their handkerchiefs out and all wave them, handkerchiefs, white flags in the sweaty air of a 1963 Florida night. But the highlight of the entire set is the last song, "Having a Party," which seems, in the Live at the Harlem Square Club recording, almost like an essay on what live music is supposed to mean. "We're having a party / dancing to the music" goes the chorus, again and again to this beautiful band, swinging along, and at the end of the song—after a long call-and-response with the audience—Cooke tells them that "I hate to quit" and then explains to them what the night has been about, this wonderful ball that they've all been having, and what they should do next:
Don't fight it. You keep on having a party. I gotta go. But when you go home, keep on having that party. No matter where you're at, remember I told you to keep on having that party. If you're with your loved one somewhere, keep on having that party, understand? If you feel good all alone riding to the radio sometime, riding in a car and the radio's on, keep on having that party.
This song is so moving to me I just about weep every time I hear it, and at the same time it's a song that will always cheer me up when nothing else can. It's a song that encapsulates everything I think pop music and performance should be. And it's scripted. According to Peter Guralnick's excellent Cooke biography Dream Boogie, on this particular tour the usually more sedate Cooke was furiously trying to compete with Little Richard's dynamic set on the same bill, and to that end he kept refining the exact same songs in the exact same order, with programmed banter that only changed slightly each night. When you hear Live at the Harlem Square Club, you're hearing a band performing off of a script. At the same time, everybody who's heard it knows that when you listen to Live at the Harlem Square Club that's not what you're hearing at all. You're hearing something that's both faker and truer than real life, you're hearing genuine, surging emotion, organized and ordered for maximum impact on both the audience and the people playing it. On the page, a script is dead. Live, it changes every night, depending on what the audience is like, depending on what happened to the band the day before, if they had a good meal or if they had no sleep, if they fought or if they laughed or if they maybe took too many drugs one afternoon in Hamburg and then remembered they had to play a TV show that night in Bremen.
I don't know how much of Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show: Live reflects a scripted, programmed set and how much is unprogrammed madness and chaos. My hunch is that programming and scripting was minimal at best, but ultimately it doesn't really matter. This is who these guys really and truly and deeply were. We know it and feel it intuitively. These are the guys who founding member George Cummings will soon have "personal and musical differences" with and leave, these are the guys who will almost quit music and declare bankruptcy, who will have a minor comeback with, of all things, the Sam Cooke song "Only Sixteen," and who will then go on to soft-rock success and ignominy. You probably hadn't heard about them before this article, or had vaguely heard about them but didn't care, and if you're still with me by this point I just want to say thank you and to tell you that I feel very silly writing twenty pages about them and you're probably very very sick of them by now and I'm sorry. They weren't really that important. They weren't really unsung heroes. They weren't the Van Goghs of mid-70s rock. They weren't the greatest rock and roll band in the world, except for one night when they were.