Actor, author, and raconteur Penn Jillette, better known as half of the Emmy award-winning magic duo Penn and Teller, reveals all in his Guest DJ set. He talks about how a Frank Zappa concert inspired his career in entertainment, how "word poems" are a rip off that resulted in the creation of beautiful music and delights in the avant-garde yet sexy sounds of The Residents. Penn just released his 8th book, Presto!: How I Made Over 100 Pounds Disappear and Other Magical Tales.
Hosted by Eric J Lawrence.
1. Jesus Christ Football Star - Martin Mull - Mulling it Over
2. Firecracker Firecracker - Half Japanese -Sing No Evil
3. Do you know the difference between Big Wood and Brush -American Song-Poem Anthology
4. King Lear’s Blues (Cordelia) – John Simon
5. Happy Together - Fillmore East – June 1971 -- Mothers of Invention + Turtles version
EJL: Hi, I’m Eric J. Lawrence and I'm here with actor, author, and raconteur Penn Jillette, better known as half of the Emmy award winning magic duo Penn and Teller. Today we’re here to talk about some songs that have inspired him through his life as part of KCRW’s Guest DJ Project. Penn, thank you so much for coming down for us!
PJ: Thanks for having me!
EJL: What’s the first track you got for us?
PJ: I guess I’m gonna play Jesus Christ Football Star, by Martin Mull. He was, and still is, a hero - a huge inspiration.
I grew up in western Massachusetts, where I went to the first Congregationalist church- and going to youth group, I was encouraged to read the Bible, and I did.
Of course, the quickest way to become an atheist is to read the Bible. And if you can finish reading the Bible and remain Christian, you are a better man than me. So I became atheist.
But I was atheist and there weren't many people who were out-of-the-closest atheists that were in my sphere. We had Randy Newman, we had Monty Python, you had Frank Zappa. But Martin Mull came out as this clear-eyed, friendly, happy, funny atheist.
“Jesus Christ Football Star”, which is simply a parody of Jesus Christ Superstar -- the music is great, it’s a poppy tune, it’s a summery tune, and has lines that made me laugh out loud, and still make me laugh out loud.
Song: Martin Mull -- “Jesus Christ Football Star”
PJ: Probably a perfectly structured joke, and Martin Mull, his background is a little more upper class than mine, but he became an inspiration to me on so many fronts. One is atheism. Two is style of comedy, but “Jesus Christ Football Star” - laugh out loud funny, morally impeccable, and completely inspiring.
EJL: That was Martin Mull, with Jesus Christ Football Star. What’s the next track you’ve got for us?
PJ: “Firecracker Firecracker” by Half Japanese, from the record Sing No Evil.
When I first heard Half Japanese, I heard “Calling All the Girls of the World”, which I will say proudly was a single that sold fewer than a hundred copies, and one was sold to me. But the idea that music could be separated from notes and harmony, in quite a lot of contrast from Martin Mull, who has perfect pitch, perfect intonation, everything - is dead on with Martin Mull.
Half Japanese is not quite true. They’re a wild, wild band. And no sort of intonation that’s common for Western music. Actually I played with Half Japanese, I played bass with them on one tour, playing punk clubs.
I was playing on Broadway and then sneaking off to play with Half Japanese. So I would go from being on a Broadway stage, jump in a limo, and go to some little club where I actually could not stand up on stage. I'm 6 foot 7, and the stage was 6’4”. So I had to kind of crumple over to play bass.
But fortunately, you don’t need big heavy chops to play bass with Half Japanese. One of the reasons I love Half Japanese so much is that although I admire that kind of loose, honest, direct, from-the-heart playing, I am unable to do it.
I am essentially a tightass.
So sexy, so wild, so honest, and just, noise music, that I fell in love with. I love how tapped into a pure kind of sense of the right emotion being more important than the right note.
EJL: Well, here it is - the legendary Half Japanese with “Firecracker, Firecracker”.
Song: Half Japanese with “Firecracker, Firecracker”
EJL: That was Half-Japanese with “Firecracker Firecracker” --
PJ: Boom boom boom!
EJL: -- as selected by our guest, Penn Jillette.
PJ: I’ll throw in the ‘boom boom boom!’
EJL: Of course. What’s the next track you got for us?
PJ: I’m going to play “Do You Know the Difference Between Big Wood and Brush”, from the American Song Poem Anthology.
Song poems are a rip-off. Song poems are a vanity thing. There’d be ads in the back of magazines that said, “Could you be a songwriter?” And if you wrote in, whatever you sent in, they would write back and say, “This is a great song. We need to put out a demo, and that’ll cost you $100.“ To give you an idea of the socioeconomic group they’re going for, $100-150 would be spread out in 1 year payments. So these aren’t people who have disposable income of $100 at their fingertips they are going for. These are people that are grabbing 4 or 5 dollars a week.
And it is a rip off. What they did to these people was wrong. But accidentally, they did some of the most beautiful art possible. What happened is you’d get session cats, and they would do as many songs as they could. And they would have charts that were written out, and the singer would hold the paper in front of him, and read the music and sing it - never a second take.
And then the money was used to print a very limited number of records and send them to people that were on there saying that these are also going out to Warner Brothers and every other company. But it would say, “Greatest Hits of Young Songwriters,” right?
So what you’ve got is, you’ve got this combination of pure innocence coupled with the cynicism of studio musicians. Big Wood is your wife, the love of your life. And Brush is, you know, the affairs you’d have along the way. He tells the story of his sister and his brother-in-law, and the brother-in-law going and finding someone else and going through this. And that has a kind of truth to it that you never see in pop music.
I judge people very much on this song. If you listen to “Big Wood and Brush” and you laugh because you think the person who wrote this song is incompetent, and you don’t feel the absolute love, I will hate you for the rest of my life.
I can’t get over it because this song, as much as you want to be silly, as much as you want to joke around, what’s honest about this is what’s honest about humanity. And there’s a real truth in this that I love. So, this is cynical musicians and an absolutely honest lyricist, thrown together in a rip-off scheme, to make the wonder that is song poems.
EJL: Well here it is, the great example of song poems, “Do You Know the Difference between Big Wood and Brush?”
EJL: That was “Do You Know the Difference Between Big Wood and Brush.” What’s the next track you got for us?
PJ: You know, I, grew up with pop music. My, my mother and father listened to the radio, they listened to pop music. And, so I started loving music with the Smothers Brothers, went from there to the Monkees, went from there to the Beatles, and I went from the Monkees - because of Mike Nesmith - directly to Frank Zappa. Zappa led me to Varese, led me to Stravinsky, but -- this record came out. I think I got interested in John Simon, because remember the Warner Brothers did the loss leaders-
PJ: Samplers? And on one of those samplers, one of them had a John Simon cut. And, John Simon is kind of a George Martin type character.
So John Simon - because of being so successful - was given kind of Carte Blanche, and a metric fuck(bleep) ton of money to do records. And...he decided to do these records with like monster bands! He decided to do pop music, but pop music that is its own genre.
That was the first time I heard jazz people blowing over changes. It was still pop music, but the guys blowin’ are really blowing. It’s improvisation.
And John’s singing -- his intonation with the saxes being a little off, and a little bit of the beats that were in there -- were amazing. Now, the one I wanted to play was “Open Up Summer Time.” But, he has the line in it ”open up cloudy day, chase those motherfucking clouds away.” So..um...I chose this other one, which might even be better. It’s “King Lear’s Blues”.
After he does this whole journey - which is what the record is, and this whole record is so...joyful, yet fragile. So complex and so innocent. The singing is innocent and the music is complex.
You see a theme here from what I love. I love a complex type music coupled with completely vulnerable and open vocals. I wrote to John Simon, wrote him an email, and said I had chosen this song, and he said “I can’t understand why you’d pick this song, there’s no accounting for taste,” so I explained to him, ‘cause you would let me say motherfucker.’
EJL: Well, here’s John Simon with “King Lear’s Blues.”
Song: John Simon -- “King Lear’s Blues”
EJL: That was John Simon, from his 1972 album “Journey,” and “King Lear’s Blues.” What’s the last track you got for us?
PJ: Last track is “Happy Together.” But I don’t care about The Turtles’ version. It’s Happy Together at the Fillmore East, June 1971, with the Mothers of Invention.
I was trying very hard to be a rock snob. I had been a big fan of The Monkees and pop music, and then I had gone over to Dylan, and I had gone over to Zappa. And now, I had built in my head a real strong dichotomy.
So there was garbage music, and then there was smart music. And I had decided my classmates who listened to pop music were fools, and then my friends - we were the intelligentsia.
I drove to Boston to see the Mothers, to see smart music. And the Mothers were Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, who were from The Turtles. They weren’t “real” music, and they were on stage with the Mothers. And that was okay, I guess, because they were no longer Turtles, they were Mothers! The set went on, and it was smart, and The Turtles were doing a great job! Wait a minute, they’re skilled? Wait a minute, how did that happen, when did that happen? What’s going on? My little 16 year old self, my mind is gong, wbwbwbwbw?
And then, all of a sudden. “Imagine me and you-I do-” WHAT? And the Mothers are doing the anti-Mothers music!
And in that instant, there in Boston, 16 years old, I realized something - that Billy West, the great voice guy would say later to me -- there’s one show business.
And, if you’re in the arts, you’re in that show business! And Bach, and Beethoven, and Ron Jeremy, and the Turtles, and Lenny Bruce, and Howie Mandel, that’s all the same job!
There’s one show business, and all of that flooded into me, and that is the moment when I decided, ”well maybe, I could do a magic show!” and I had this thing where i would be a hack while I would be enjoying the work of the real artists, and if the Turtles and the Mothers could have the same job, then I could have the same job as Doug Hemming and David Copperfield and also the same job as Lenny Bruce! (laughs)
And also the same job as all the geniuses that I wasn’t fit to be then. And it all happens in that *taps table* Imagine me and you, and that was it!
EJL: Well here it is, the magical moment “Happy Together”, featuring the Mothers of Invention and the Turtles!
Song: “Happy Together”
EJL: That was the Mothers of Invention and the Turtles with Happy Together, as performed at the Fillmore East back in June of 1971. Penn, I want to thank you so much for joining us here!
PJ: Thanks for having me!
EJL: For a complete track listing, and to find these songs online, go to kcrw.com.