As a child of Hollywood, Harry Shearer portrayed the original Eddie Haskell on Leave It To Beaver, appeared in Abbott & Costello Go To Mars, and after a stint at Harvard, eventually wound up on Saturday Night Live, where you can spot him in that legendary synchronized swimming sketch with Martin Short. Many know him as the bassist in Spinal Tap; others recognize his voice from The Simpsons, where he portrays characters such as Montgomery Burns, Ned Flanders, Kent Brockman and Otto. Since the '60s, Shearer has also hosted a popular music/comedy program called Le Show on Santa Monica's NPR-affiliated radio station.
His 2007 album Songs Pointed and Pointless was nominated for a Grammy, and now Shearer is back with a new cycle of satirical ditties. The album, called Songs of the Bushmen, features eleven swinging tunes, each sung from the point of view of a different member of the Bush Administration. Hear it live on Saturday night when Shearer and his ace band, "The High Value Detainees," perform the entire album and other numbers as part of a "musical impeachment" at 92YTribeca. Details and tickets here.
Was the idea for the cover art [pictured after the jump] with the bone through the nose of George Bush your idea? Yeah. Soon after I thought of the name of the record the picture just sort of flashed through my head. The sort of famous twin evil concept.
I hear some Steely Dan in that Colin Powell song, "Smooth Moves." And the lyrics are very funny, like, “They snapped a big towel at the doctrine of Powell." Thank you. I will never deny being informed by [Donald] Fagen and [Walter] Becker because their songs were a huge part of my musical landscape growing up and getting older. I think we were more self-consciously influenced by them in the Wolfowitz song ["Wolf on the Run"]. But in terms of lyrics I was really trying to follow in the footsteps of another master, Randy Newman, in the sense of writing from inside the head of the person I’m writing about, as opposed to just throwing rocks from the outside, which is a lot easier. “He’s a jerk! He's a jerk! He's a jerk! We're really good people!" I think that's really tiresome.
Has Colin Powell redeemed himself at all, in your eyes, with his recent Obama endorsement? No, not at all. I was just shocked at the unanimity of people on both sides of the fence, the McCain people and the Obama people, who fell over each other to say, “But he’s still a very trusted and highly credible individual.” I thought there was a question posed during his appearance on Meet the Press—which I wouldn’t say was a hard ball, but maybe a wiffle ball down the middle—when Tom Brokaw asked, “Do you have any regrets?” And Powell said, “Those people who think that I could have stopped this war by resigning have no basis in fact.”
Well, that may or may not be true, but my feeling is whether or not it could have stopped the war, it could have saved Powell’s reputation, and I’m at a loss to understand what greater good was served by him, having delivered that speech to the UN and then continuing to serve people who—I mean look, because Powell had his own intelligence agency. One of the 16 agencies that form the so-called intelligence community is housed in the State Department. And if you go back and look at what they were saying, all through Iraq and the war, they were right. They said they the aluminum tubes were not for centrifuges, they said the Niger documents were forgeries, they just had it right on the money. This was in his own agency, and he chose to ignore his own agency, to get bamboozled by George Tenet. It was not only a personal embarrassment but an institutional embarrassment that I don’t think he’s gone very far to resolve. I think the guy has this incredible stain, and I think it’s both poignant and amusing to have him meditate upon that musically.
So was making the album a cathartic experience for you? You know, it’s cathartic to sing these songs on stage. Because you do them all in a bunch in an hour plus, it does have a certain effect on both you and the audience. But of course, when you’re doing a record you’re doing it over a period of time—and also, record-making is so much about other things than the lyrical message. You’re getting caught up in singing and playing and mixing and details that totally upset you, but that have nothing to do with the emotional charge of what you’re singing about. The live performing is much more cathartic than the record making. The record was incredibly satisfying and quite fun and I’ve worked with a lot of the same people on this record that I did with on the last record, in terms of musicians, the producer. So it was just huge fun, but the catharsis comes from doing it in front of an audience, I think.
Have you sent any copies of the record to the Bush administration? No, why waste good plastic?
Have you ever met anyone who was involved with this administration? I have a good friend; he’s a conservative libertarian, I would say. In the early stages of the Bush administration he had some advisory capacity, but he’s become dismayed over time. I’m trying to think if I know anybody else in there. No, I don’t think I do. I just think that generally speaking it's a bad idea for a satirist to pal around with political people.
If you had the occasion to meet, say, George Bush, what do you think you would say? I’d be polite. I’m too old to think that I can make some really golden wisecrack and he’d say, “My God, I’ve seen the error of my ways thanks to this young fellow right here! Why did nobody ever say that to me before? Nobody has the nerve to tell me the truth.” You know, that’s fantasy land, so what’s the point? I’d say, “Hey, nice to meet you,” and he’d try to give me a nickname. I think that’d be it.
What nickname do you think he’d give you? Some really embarrassing twist on the other spelling of Harry and the idea of shearing a certain physical area. That I think is probably where he’d go. We just have to get locker room enough to get to where he would go. You have to think locker room.
Speaking of nicknames, that song “Turd Blossom Special” is named after Karl Rove’s nickname. Do you know the origin story to that nickname? Yeah. It’s a real flower in Texas called the Turd Blossom that grows out of cow patties.
And what about the song “Carrot Soup.” What inspired that? That's from a true story. When John Bolton was UN ambassador, he made a big thing about how “we need more sticks and fewer carrots,” and his whole idea of diplomacy. And he was so outraged when he was outvoted on some issue with the UN—I think this may be in his memoirs; he bragged about it. He went into the UN cafeteria and ostentatiously ordered a bowl of carrot soup, just to demonstrate his disdain for his colleagues.
Have you participated in the Obama campaign in any way? No, as I said, I don’t believe that satire and politics really mix. Also, I am a part-time New Orleans resident, and my attitude towards this campaign was sort of fixed at the beginning of the primary season. I said my vote is up for grabs for the first candidate who says something of substance about what happened to New Orleans and where we go from here, and that offer still stands. A friend of mine who’s a columnist for the Times-Picayune wrote a pretty good column in this morning’s paper about how bewildering and infuriating it is that this huge disaster that befell a major American city has just fallen off the radar screen by the time of this presidential election. And he's wondering what New Orleans or Louisiana could have done to have gotten a different result. I tend to think the blame doesn’t go to New Orleans or Louisiana but rather to the national news media, which mis-characterized what happened in New Orleans as a natural disaster. That made it obviously much less important for national politics, as opposed to if the real explanation had reached a wider audience.
What is the real explanation? Three different independent engineering investigations after Katrina unanimously concluded that the levying system, the so-called hurricane protection system, built by the US Army core of engineers over the last 40 years, was riddled with fatal and basic engineering flaws and design flaws. And had that system not failed, Katrina, which was not the big one, would have given New Orleans nothing worse than wet ankles.
Where do you think they are now in terms of preparing for another big one? The repairs of that system are in the hands of the same people who did it badly the last time. How prepared do you think they are? These are the people who over forty years of the administrations of both political parties screwed up their job, which was given to them by congress, of protecting the city from a major hurricane. They’re the ones now saying, “No no no, trust us. Now we know how to do it right.” Okay, then. I don’t know if we have a choice, but it certainly makes you knock wood every two feet as you walk along the street.
So are you saying there’s still a chance you could vote for McCain if he came out with a really strong plan for the rehabilitation of New Orleans? If John McCain tomorrow said, “The problem in New Orleans was a problem created by an agency of the federal government. This is now a priority; the federal government needs to fix what it screwed up, and part of that is building a much more robust flood protection system and part of that is the rebuilding of the coastal wetlands that the federal government helped to destroy over the last 40 or 50 years.” I would certainly have to think twice. But I’ll tell you, the odds are, in my humble opinion, monumentally against it.
How concerned are you about dirty tricks in this election? I’m not concerned at all. I think it’s obvious that they’re going to be played. There are a couple of books out on the subject and the only thing that’s sort of surprising is that people keep taking, for their own benefit, the position of being shocked that there are dirty tricks in American politics. They are as American as apple pie, dirty tricks in an election, practiced by both sides. Sometimes one side is better at it. Lyndon Johnson was very adept at stealing elections. That’s how he got where he ended up. In the more recent couple of cycles, the Lee Atwater school seems to have gotten better at it on that side. That’s who we are, that’s what we do.
I read that The Simpsons are going to have an episode where Homer is confounded by an electronic voting machine and it ends up hijacking his vote for McCain. Did you have a hand in that story idea? No. I have a hand in none of the writing, and as a matter of fact the first I learned about it was when I read about it on the Internet. True story.