Neil Hamburger live in Los Angeles September 15-16, 2000
by Kim Cooper
The news of comic Neil Hamburger's recent national tour caused a wave of excitement to sweep the states. It's been a long time since he left the Motel 6 circuit to play larger clubs in big cities, and his fans have missed him. Strangely, in Los Angeles Neil was not appearing at the Comedy Store, Laugh Factory or Igby's, but at the rock club Spaceland and at Over Hear, some kind of avant garde gallery space in Echo Park.
Neil's fans didn't let the offbeat locations keep them from seeing their fave funnyman, and the room was filled to capacity for the first performance at Spaceland. In fact, there wasn't a parking place to be found within eight blocks, and your editrix had to avail herself of the valet if she was to make it inside before the show began. Apparently some people were there to see a rock group called Trans Am, but the front couple of rows were all Neil-o-maniacs-including movie star and comedian Jack Black, taking mental notes to improve his own act.
The excitement in the air was palpable, as people craned their necks looking for the man who had brought them so many laughs (and tears) with his recorded works. Because Neil has never sat for a proper photo session, no one was quite sure what he looked like. Had he grown haggard since his recent divorce? Would we find him at the bar?
Finally, the stage door opened and Neil himself was standing, drink in hand, surveying his crowd. He was smaller than I expected, with greasy hair in what might have been a comb-over, big thick glasses like my English uncle Dennis wears, and a mismatched dark suit with dusty loafers. Any doubts as to his identity were dispelled as soon as he opened his mouth, and that whining delivery wafted like sour magnolias over the mic.
Coughing sporadically (Neil explained "I have cancer"), he began a series of new and familiar jokes and stories that soon had the audience reacting quite violently. A blonde woman off to the right interjected regularly with comments and catcalls (more about her later), and two young men right in front of Neil yelled something that sounded like "my choice!" repeatedly. Some people were laughing, others wincing, as Neil ran through a relaxed set that touched on such subjects as Teletubby penis grafts, the Red Hot Chili Peppers' love of heroin, Mormons and anal sex, and of course Princess Diana.
At one point Neil refused to finish a joke as a punishment for one heckler--"I'm not going to tell you the punchline, loudmouth!"--and he didn't. When the audience pelted him with dimes, he pocketed them happily. The "my choice!" guys were getting more and more rowdy, and one of them finally moved to climb onto the low stage and accost Neil. With an athlete's grace, Neil emptied his drink in the kid's face and called for a refill, and his antagonist immediately backed down.
The night ended on a high note with the celebrated Zipper Shtick, leaving at least one audience member red-faced yet proud at being singled out for Neil's unique brand of comic humiliation. Then Trans Am came out, and they didn't have any jokes, so I didn't see any reason to hang around. Besides, I needed my rest if I was going to be fresh for the second night of Neil Magic!
The Spaceland show was fun, but Neil was in looser form the following night at Over Hear, and of the two this show was my favorite. Apparently his appearance was preceded by a mariachi band (who I missed) and some young rappers who jumped around in the manner of gibbons. The place was an art gallery, all righty--you could tell by the white walls, concrete floor, and all the pretty kids from Art Center milling around in their polyester finery. Professor Mayo Thompson was also spotted (with some difficulty, since he was all in white and blended into the room), as was comedy fan Don Bolles. The show ran late, and by the time Neil stepped onto the stage from the small door leading back to the beer garden, there were at least a hundred people who had that "make me laugh, goddamit" look on their faces.
Maybe Neil underestimated his own popularity, because quite a bit of his set was repeated from the night before. Unfortunately, the blonde blabbermouth from Spaceland had come to the second show--with his act memorized! As soon as the repeat jokes started coming, she began yelling out the punchlines during Neil's pauses. He tried to ignore her for as long as he could, then finally snarled "Why don't you come up and introduce yourself, you little bitch?" Rumor was that she was a friend of Neil's wife. It is conceivable that the Culver City resident might have sent a friend to interfere with her ex-husband's local performances. Neil was onto her, though, and started changing his punchlines to make her look dumb. While this did make the jokes less amusing, it successfully shut up his heckler.
When the audience yelled "How's your wife?" Neil admitted he had agreed not to talk about her in exchange for all his Raw Hamburger royalties and a guarantee that she wouldn't sue him for slander. But since Jesus hasn't sued him yet, he could say anything he liked about that guy. I wouldn't want to repeat any of the foul things Neil said about some folks' Lord and Savior, so let's just say that true believers might want to think twice before attending one of his performances.
An effort to make a joke at Elian Gonzalez' expense fell flat when Neil, who's spent most of the last year in Australia, mispronounced the kid's name. He quickly reclaimed the room by intoning his celebrated "That's my life!" catchphrase a few times, and riffing on Princess Diana. Who doesn't love a good Diana joke?
Neil wrapped things up with a long, relatively hilarious story about Anthony Kiedis' repeated visits to a local bar in search of heroin. The punchline when it finally came had the audience clutching their sides, which were aching with convulsive laughter. Neil Hamburger slipped out the door before anyone realized he was gone, and we all returned to our workaday lives, each one a little changed from having spent some special time in the company of America's Funnyman, Neeeeeeeeeeeiiiiiillllll Haaaaaammmmmmmburger!
About Scram #13: The cover cutie's Janet Klein, and she leads a naughty old timey ensemble called The Parlor Boys. Plus Hub Kapp & the Wheels, Mooney Suzuki, guys who sing like girls, The Frantics, Mark Farner, Red Planet, Gene Sculatti on the Top 10 "next Dylans," the final days of the Kahiki tiki restaurant, Shocking Blue, Neil Hamburger live. Wanna own the magazine in which this and so many other nifty stories appear? Pick up Scram #13
Dion DiMucci was a kid from the Bronx who used to sing Doo Wop on street corners with his buddies. He was a nice looking boy, and "The Wanderer" is one of the few really great records you still hear on oldies radio. He made two awful Hollywood pictures around the turn of the '50s -- you know, in those weird days when rock and roll was no longer greasy and threatening, before those long-haired guys with accents showed up to get things hopping again. Look out for Teenage Millionare and Twist Around the Clock on early morning local TV. So that was Dion & the Belmonts, and if you want a real history you can go to the library and look it up, 'cause it's all there.
What you won't find in the early chapters of Rock On is the reason Dion got hooked on heroin and spent the better part of the sixties enjoying the decor of various gutters. Althouqh he seems to have come pretty close, in the end he didn't die.
And in 1968 he crept back to make a record on the Belmonts' old label, Laurie. Simply titled Dion, and sporting an appropriately noirish cover shot of the heavily shadowed Dion clutching an invisible guitar, this album is worth rediscovering. Scott Walker was quoted as saying that Dion was his favorite new album of 1967, and if it's good enough for the cutest Walker Brother it oughtta be good enough for you.
Producer Phil Gernhard's liner notes set the scene: "When you listen to this album, we hope it gives you a good kick in the gut." It's not that the record is ugly, difficult or in any way abrasive. Superficially it's as soothing a set of songs as you're likely to hear. The gut-kick is carefully couched in Dion's subtle phrasing, and in several songs that offer quietly scathing social critiques.
Dion is largely an album of interpretations, and unfortunately a number of its songs have since become standards, their familiarity rendering them almost nonexistent to the listener. Nevertheless, Dion does wonderful things with them. The record opens with the hit "Abraham, Martin and John," in which the singer invokes the martyred spirits of the dead and invites them to hang close around him as he plays. An abstract folk reading of "Purple Haze" is a remarkable reworking. With its sweet scat intro and bongos, it manages to be incredibly psychedelic without giving in to any overt musical excesses. When Dion purrs, "I'm acting funny, can't find the reason why," it's infinitely more disturbing and real than in Hendrix' freaked-out version. This song is also notable for introducing a vocal arrangement that would turn up verbatim on Scott Walker's masterful "Hero of the War (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime)" on Scott 4. Other covers include one of the prettier versions of Fred Neil's "The Dolphins," Dylan's "Tomorrow is a Long Time," and an early "Both Sides Now."
Flip to side two for Dion's original songs, which along with "Purple Haze" are what make this record so special. "He Looks a Lot Like Me" is a stunning anti-war hymn which blends equal parts Phil Ochs' sensibilities, Tim Buckley's vocal trickery, and Mario Lanza's tasteful stylizations; throw some gypsy violins into the arrangement and you have an unlikely but effective fusion of Italian folk tradition and the protest scene. Next up is "Sun Fun Song," an eerily dark take on the genre of joyful sixties pop-folk that is lyrical, bleak, and sonically unlike anything you have ever heard before.
Round it out with versions of "Sisters of Mercy," "Everybody's Talking," and "Loving You is Sweeter than Ever," ace interpretations every one. Dion is a haunting return to the form by an artist who's been through all manner of degradation and self-hate. It's all there, in the beauty of his voice, in the subtle arrangements, and in the dichotomy of two perfect original songs, one a vision of the bleak hopelessness of war, the other an equally fearsome vision of giddy pleasure.
Wanna read more? Scram #6 is just $6 postpaid in the U.S., $9 overseas. You can also find this story in our special Having A Rave Up With Scram Magazine issue, with the Peter Bagge cover and all the best historical music features from our first eight issues. The Rave Up costs $8 ( $9 in Canada, $11 overseas). Send cash, check or money order payable to Kim Cooper, PO Box 31227, Los Angeles, CA 90031 or pay online with paypal to scram [at] scrammagazine [dot] com. It would be appreciated if you added a buck to cover the fees.