The Ballad of The Skeletons

To repeat the relevant paragraphs in our recently re-published Harvey Kubernik interview.

Allen: “I had a gig at Albert Hall in London. A reading. I had been talking quite a bit to (Paul) McCartney, visiting him and bringing him poetry and haiku, and looking at Linda McCartney’s photographs and giving him some photos I’d taken of them. So, McCartney liked it and filmed me doing “(The Ballad of The) Skeletons” in a little 8 millimeter home thing. And then I had this reading at (the) Albert Hall, and I asked (him) if he could recommend a young guitarist who was a quick study. So he gave me a few names but (then) he said, “If you’re not fixed up with a guitarist, why don’t you try me? I love the poem”. So I said, “It’s a date”.

It was last November [November 1995]. We went to Paul’s house and spent an afternoon rehearsing. He came to the sound check and we did a little rehearsal there, again. And then he went up to his box with his family. It was a benefit for literary things. There were 15 other poets (on the bill). We didn’t tell anybody that McCartney was going to play. And we (had) developed that riff really nicely. In fact, Linda (had) made a little tape of our rehearsal. So then, we went on stage and knocked it out. There’s a photo of us on the CD. It was a very lively and he was into it”

Harvey Kubernik: What did Paul McCartney add to your recording of “..Skeletons”?

Allen: He reacts to the words in an intelligent way. You can hear it on the tape. Like, if I say on the recording, “What’s cooking”, all of a sudden he brings in the maracas to get that really funny excitement. When I say, “Blow Nancy Blow”, he blows on the Hammond organ. He added a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of interpretation. And sometimes when I made a flub, he covered it. He left his lead sheet in his guitar case, so we had to share my lead sheet (at the gig), which was fun.
Then I did the poem at Carnegie Hall (in New York at a benefit) for the Tibet House, that followed the Albert Hall show. And… Danny Goldberg, (President of Mercury Records), was in the audience at Carnegie Hall, (and he) called up my office.. ’cause he heard it and liked it and said, “Do you want to record it?” I got together Marc Ribot, who I had played it with first, Lenny (Kaye) and David Mansfield. And Lenny was the session-maker..
We made a basic track – and McCartney had said, “If you record it, I’d like to work on it. It would be fun”. So we did a 24-hour overnight-mail to him, and he got it, and listened to it, after a few days. He spent a day on it. He put on maracas, drums, (which was unexpected, which we needed), and organ, Hammond organ, trying to sound like Al Kooper. And guitar, which was very strong. Then the day it arrived, Philip Glass was in town, and he volunteered because he thought it was my hit, so he wanted to do something with it. He added on piano, very much in his style, and fitting perfectly onto the rest of the tape. Then Hal Willner wound up mixing it and brought out McCartney’s role and the structure that McCartney had given to it, ’cause he gave it a very nice, dramatic structure. I had planned that after “Blow Nancy Blow” you would have four consecutive choruses of instrumentals. McCartney and I had planned the breaks the first time, and varied it a little..

The Danny Goldberg-commissioned recording was released on Mercury’s subsidiary, Mouth Almighty Records.
Here’s Daniel Browne’s review for allmusic.

And here’s Goldberg with a little more, further, background:

“Since I was the latest connection Allen had to rock n roll, he would call, like any other artist, exalted about opportunities to promote his music and expand his audience. When Tom Freston, the CEO of MTV bought five of Allen’s photos, Ginsberg promptly called me, not too subtly implying that, if Mercury would fund production of a video, we might be able to get on MTV. Allen had an unerring instinct of how to mobilize his mystique for those who were interested. He regaled Freston with stories of the Beatniks one night at our house, which made it almost impossible for MTV to reject his video despite the fact that he was decades older than typical MTV artists and audience members. A political satire of both generations, “..Skeltons” received highly-publicized and much-coveted “buzz-bin” rotation on the week’s before the..election – to the consternation of other record companies who were submitting artists with more conventional credentials. This made Allen the only 70-year-old besides Tony Bennett to ever be played on MTV..

Not that Freston should even think of rejection, since the video was a short four-minute masterpiece made by famed Hollywood director, Gus Van Sant. The film (video) begins with Allen in close-up (“Uncle Sam” hat and all) speaking, forcefully, directly into the camera. His reading is “blue-screened” and dissolved against archival film and video clips (of a decidedly – and intentional – political slant – contemporaneous (from the Dole/Clinton presidential campaign), but also, more iconic earlier imagery from the Civil Rights movement).

Here’s a third “..Skeletons” performance, this time with Steven Taylor and Eliot Greenspan on guitars (and Guy Cohen on bass), recorded at the Fox Theater, Boulder, Colorado

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