The Rip Post

CHUCK E. WEISS: MENSCH, MONKEY, AND LIAR

by Rip Rense

(Originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Denver Post.)

'"And deal the cards, roll the dice
if it ain't that old Chuck E. Weiss. . ."
---from "I Wish I Was in New Orleans," by Tom Waits.

   
         Chuck E. Weiss sounds like a publicity stunt, a concoction of apocryphae. Oh sure, you think, a Denver trashman (one "Pappy" Frye) gave him his first batch of blues records---fished out of the garbage, no less---when he was about six.. Sure, he sang with Willie Dixon while he was still a teenager---and toured with Lightnin' Hopkins during his teens and early 20s, playing drums. Sure, he taught a class in the History of American Music at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Sure, Sonny Liston was his neighbor. . .
         Come on, this guy's really just a character in songs by Waits---and that Rickie Lee Jones hit, "Chuck E.'s in Love," right? After all, who has ever actually seen him perform? And how many Chuck E. Weiss albums are in the average record collection?
         The answer to the second question turns out to be a maximum potential of two: the obscure The Other Side of Town, a demo tape released as an album without Weiss's approval eighteen years ago, and the earthy, R&B-infested Extremely Cool (Rykodisc)---just released to a rush of very warm notices. It seems that Chuck E.'s in. . .the flesh.
         "Recording an album was my goal when I was younger, but I don't know why it hadn't been my goal for a while," he said. "A lady from NPR yesterday asked me in all seriousness if I had taken 18 years to record this one. I told her I was very much against the contrived music that you hear today, so that would be a little bit overboard. Although I wouldn't be surprised if it did take some group 18 years to record an album. . ."
         Weiss bit down hard on a cheeseburger (on top of some rapidly-shoveled cole slaw) in the Hollywood Hills Coffee Shop, a friendly, red-vinyl-boothed neighborhood restaurant that is, sadly, fast being discovered as a "secret" celebrity hangout. He's has eaten there for years because he happens to have an apartment around the corner.
         "I was macrobiotic for a long time," he chewed, apologetically, "but I slipped and had one of these and got hooked again."
         Out came the Weiss laugh---a rolling baritone that is a bit shaggy around the edges from smoking. The man himself is a bit shaggy around the edges, what with a mussy Rubber Soul-era Beatles haircut, loose-fitting knit pullover sweater, lived-in face, and easy manner. If he was a couch, you'd want to sit on him.
         "I can't tell you why I was not recording," he said, as if considering the question for the first time. "I'm the kind of a guy that doesn't do much planning. Just say that I got sidetracked."
         In the '70s, Weiss and Waits and a troupe of fellow raconteurs could usually be found in Hollywood, somewhere between their rooms at the famed pop star dormitory, The Tropicana Motor Inn, and a local showcase called The Troubador (with plenty of layover time in Duke's Coffee Shop.) Rickie Lee Jones eventually drifted into the clan (that's her and Weiss on the inside spread of Waits' 1978 album, Blue Valentine), and their bonhomie was celebrated in a Weiss-Jones duet, "Sidekick," on that early demo tape/album. While Jones and Waits eventually left Hollywood for greater glories, marriages, and families, Weiss stayed behind and. . .performed.
         Concerning the question of who has ever actually seen this guy in concert, well, the answer is. . .a lot of people in Southern California.
          Chuck E. and his band, The Goddamn Liars, have been a club fixture for 20---that's twenty---years. ("Therapeutically, I have to play at least once or twice a week.") Their R&B, quasi-Vaudevillian shows (the early ones featured the oral table-spinning legend, "Iron Jaws" Wilson) have a devoted following. You expect Weiss's name to pop up on L.A. club marquees the way you expect to find hookers on Sunset Boulevard. Why hasn't he ever taken the show on the road?
         "I hate flying," he said flatly. "I'm the guy in The Twilight Zone that sees the thing on the wing and goes absolutely mad."
         Chuck E. Weiss (the "E" is for Existential, Educated, or Edward, depending on who you believe), spent his youth in Denver, Colo.,---a time he remembers with a blend of nostalgia and. . .pure alienation.
         "I was the only Jew for a hundred miles," he laughed. "Well, not quite a hundred miles. But I kind of always felt like a Ubangi dropped in the middle of Times Square on New Year's Eve."
         On the other hand, Weiss could write one of those "everything I learned" books about the place: you know, Everything I've Learned in Life I Learned in Denver. He learned about music by hanging around his mom and dad's downtown record store, Record Center, in the '60s. At home, his dad, Leo "P.G." Weiss, continued the boy's musical education, playing all sorts of records: boogie-woogie, Hank Williams, Khatchaturian's "Saber Dance." For his part, young Chuck would promptly "lock the door and just roll around in a frenzy." To harness this "frenzy," Pop bought Chuck some used drums when he was nine, and "I just seemed to know how to play them." By his teens, Weiss was hanging around a club called The 400 Club, where he got to know Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, and another place called Ebbetts Field.
         There, improbable as it sounds, Weiss actually did become good friends with Dixon and Lightnin' Hopkins, eventually drumming with both (and singing a few songs with Dixon in a mid-70s recording session.) Dixon was an occasional guest speaker in Weiss's History of American Music honors class at the University of Colorado in Boulder, "Flipsters, Hipster, and Finger-Poppin' Daddies," and a featured artist during Weiss's stint as a deejay on KFML AM&FM.
         "Yeah, it all doesn't sound very probable to me right now," said Weiss. "Sure I was in awe, but in both cases, with Willie Dixon and Lightnin' Hopkins, these guys had this attitude about givin' away what somebody gave to them. And I was a young guy who might carry on the tradition. I was like a student. I can't imagine wanting to meet anybody today. If there was somebody I admired so much, I don't think I'd even approach them. I would not think of going up to B.B. King or Eric Clapton, for example. Besides, it's something that's kind of overdone nowadays."
         Weiss first met Waits at one of the latter's Denver tourstops in the early 70s, and quickly discovered they had two things in common: a love of language, and the sound of upright bass. It was Waits, and his oft-collaborator and wife, Kathleen Brennan, who finally prompted Weiss to record Extremely Cool. (Waits co-produced the album with Weiss and his bandmates, and co-wrote two of the songs.)
         "Tom and Kathleen said 'this is what you've got to do,' so I listened to 'em," Weiss laughed. "'Cause I know that if I listen to me, nothing will happen."
         Weiss and Waits "hung out and drank coffee, got crazy, then went into the studio"---and cut the album's twelve tracks in a mere three days. Stylistically, call the music R&B, inflected with mock-cajun and jazz, or, as Weiss prefers, "alternative jungle music."
         Asked to comment on working of his old friend, Waits seemed to speak from that very alternative jungle:
         "Chuck E. Weiss," he said, "is a mensch, a liar, a monkey, and a pathological Vaudevillian. He is a distant relative of Houdini's; he's a praying mantis riding an egret through a bad neighborhood. He's a reverend waving a pistol around. Basically, he's in the salvage business and you should do everything he tells you."
         Among the Weiss originals on Extremely Cool are the Weiss-Waits collaborations, "It Rains on Me," and "Do You Know What I Idi Amin?" plus the mock-Cajun ("actually I meant for it to sound like a pirate song") "Oh Marcy," and something called "Pygmy Fund."
         "There is such a thing as the Pygmy Fund," he said. "There's an organization you can contribute to in order to, I guess, keep Pygmies from becoming an extinct civilization. I overheard some people talking about it, and decided to write a song about it. I just thought it was a real cool thing to do---give your money to the Pygmy Fund."
         "Rockin' In the Kibbitz Room" commemorates many Tuesday nights at Canter's Deli in the Fairfax district of Hollywood, where a waiter named Jack handed out free hot dogs ("very important to me"); "Horseface" was inspired by his elementary school friend, Charlotte, who would whistle at pretty girls, wait for them to turn around, and then declare "Not, you, Horseface!"; "Do You Know What I Idi Amin?" is an extended riff on an old Waits/Weiss wordplay from the early days; "Roll On Jordan" is a hats-off to Weiss's greatest musical love, Louis Jordan.
         "I went my whole youth," he said, " listening to thousands and thousands of records, without hearing him. As soon as I did, I thought, what? Why didn't I hear this before? I've spent the rest of my life listening to his stuff. You could say this is the guy that created rock and roll, fused everything together, created jumpin' jive, but I don't want to use labels."
         There is also "Sonny Could Lick All Them Cats," a tribute to bedeviled heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, who really was Weiss's neighbor back in Denver:   
         "He lived two blocks away," said Weiss. "I remember once he was driving his car at 4 a.m. at 80 miles an hour, with a heater on the seat. And when the cops stopped him, he said he was just looking for a new house. It took 25 cops to subdue him. You know, everybody ducked this guy. But he was always nice to kids, and I always liked the fact that he knocked (Floyd) Patterson out in one round, two fights. He was never considered a hero to anyone. No one greeted him at the airport when he won the championship. I've always been fascinated by the mystique."
         As for Weiss's own mystique, well, it must now contend with the reality of his recorded music. Word is that Extremely Cool's sales---especially in Europe---are way beyond expecations. Does this mean that Chuck E. Weiss must now turn into that Twilight Zone guy and. . .fly? He smiled.
         "I want to play at the train stations, and do something with Amtrak. I love trains. I'd like to play at Penn Station, and all the Union Stations around the country. I think it would be cool. And I loved Harry Truman."

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