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’d like to clarify here that 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 of these portraits-of-musicians 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 in this piece will I make any kind of postmodern bid to revise the 1970’s 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 pretentiousness 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, children’s author, and permanent guest at the Playboy mansion Shel Silverstein, and, later, a banal disco band who specialized 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. It’s reasonable to conclude: one or some or most or all of the above. 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 – in Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show: Live – 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. The viewer is hit with 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 main characters in Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show: Live become gradually more defined. Obstacles stand in their way, and we root for them to overcome them. Conflict flares up. The stakes are made clear. 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. At other times he turns his ass toward the camera and jiggles or fondles it. 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.
“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! Almost immediately, his vocals do a heartstring-pulling thing. There’s a scraped-out world-weary catch in his voice, and a likeable sweetness too. You feel it. As if to acknowledge what he just pulled off, Locorriere breaks into a grin and then accidentally starts to crack himself up. In the background, Sawyer is smiling too, the kind of stoned vacant irresistible smile of a three-month-old baby. He starts punching the air as the song builds into a beautiful little chorus, “Please, Mrs. Avery, I’ve just got to talk to her…”
There’s another verse: pleasant, competent. 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.'”
I like imagining who the original TV audience for Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show: Live were. Obviously they were German. Were they teenagers? Housewives? I don’t know what the original airtime for Der Musikladen was, and I don’t know what its original viewership was, but Locorriere acts as if the program is on late at night when only insomniacs might still be watching TV. His banter to the imagined late-night audience is a mixture of the self-loathing and the passive-aggressive. “If you’re at home and if you’re sitting around on your water-bed, man, if you’re studying, you know…If we’re keeping you awake, we’re sorry. You know, it’s late. I know it’s late. Just wake up!”
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.
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. Anticlimatically, there follows an agonizingly long stretch of guitar tuning where Locorriere and rhythm guitarist Rik Elswit (who has the look of a hippie Sunday-school teacher and is in a way the band’s secret weapon) both hunch over Sawyer’s horrendously out-of-tune acoustic and try to make it sound decent. “Gah, terrible!” Locorriere pronounces, “It sounds terrible! Wait ’til you hear this!”
In fact, when they start the song, entitled just “Yodel,” it sounds really good – a fun little song with a great six-part harmony that finds almost the entire band singing. 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. Locorriere and Sawyer are, in their odd way, consummate frontmen and fantastic singers, both evocative of their more famous contemporaries and distinctly original. The rhythmic section of the band is tight and turn-on-a-dime responsive. 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.
When they finish “Yodel,” Locorriere tells the Musikladen audience, “We have a new single that will be released any minute – 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.” It’s entertaining to hear them work their way through the song, a particularly tuneful one called “Cops ‘N’ Robbers” that they truly do appear not to know very well. When they get to the end of the song, Locorriere desperately tries to lead the band into a big rock climax, begging them, “Help me! Help me! Oh, help me! Take it. Take it! Take it! Come on! CHAAAAARGE!” Instead, and despite Locorriere’s wild protestations, the arrangement gets slower and slower and sparser until it finally grinds to an inert halt. 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. Gone are the big boisterous six-part harmonies and the effusive shaggy-dog arrangements. In their place is a lean, tough groove built around a driving beat (Sawyer forsakes singing for percussion, and he’s joined by Billy Francis on tambourine for much of the song) and a compellingly nasty blues guitar figure played by Rik Elswit. 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.
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.
But sadly the next song in their set, “Roland the Roadie,” finds the band at their most tedious and clunky. This is Shel Silverstein lazily making fun of roadies, and Dr. Hook – ever the workingman’s band – take pains to distance themselves from his mockery. Locorriere twice botches a boring spoken-word introduction, stopping himself to note that, “It’s all right, man, I’m just afraid that our roadies would…” He pauses to correct the plural: “Our roadie’s gonna beat us up!” They proceed with the song – a mostly forgettable character study of the title character’s doomed love for fellow-traveler “Gertrude the Groupie” – and though the band play fine, it feels like they’ve lost some vital essence here, almost as if the cataclysm of George’s “Penicillin Penny” performance has sucked a good portion of joy and life from their set. The footage even begins with a very obvious iris fade-in, a telltale give-away that some kind of edit in the action has been made. What that edit is we can only guess. Did the band play even more underwhelming songs that the Musikladen people mercifully decided to leave out? Did they pause for dinner, or for a smoke break? Were there technical difficulties, or did they try to do a second take of some song? Did the tension between George and the rest of the band flare up in some way that was deemed unfilmable? We’ll never know, but the stutter in the action and the flatness of “Roland the Roadie” cause the energy to leach out of Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show: Live here – right at the start of the DVD’s third act.
The highlight of “Roland the Roadie” comes at the very end of the performance, when the band launches into an interpolation of the “Looney Tunes” theme. A smattering of weak applause follows before Locorriere introduces the next number as “A singing invitation.” And then comes a weird, uncomfortable pause, as Locorriere fumbles around on the floor for his capo, starts the song on an unbelievably sour first note, and starts over again. His band-mates are mostly not paying attention to him. In the corner, Sawyer has decided to turn his back on the film crew and wiggle his ass back and forth, doing a kind of lascivious but effete dance in the dead air. Billy Francis notices him and starts cracking up, and Sawyer responds by thrusting his hips, humping some invisible presence onstage in total silence. Locorriere notices too at this point, and quietly giggles to himself, “Hee hee hee hee hee!” Then they start “Freakin’ at the Freakers’ Ball.”
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.
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.
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.
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.