Dr. Hook's VD and Medicine Shows
By Tim Cahill
Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler, Nietzche and Dr. Hook and the Medicine Showall
of them itched. The first four with syphilis and gonorrhea, the seven members of Dr. Hook
because they had just done an anti-VD show for public television and had developed med-student
syndrome, which is the false and overwhelming impression that the last disease
studied is the one you have.
Dr. Hook was working on its second album at the Columbia Recording Studio here, a studio that the engineers call, with ambivalent pride, "the home of Sylvia's Mother."Jokes about poor Sylvia were in circulation. You remember her: She's on her way to Galveston to marry that fellow down there. Mother wants her to take an umbrella because it's starting to rain.
Well, Dennis Locorriere, the bearded lead singer of Dr. Hoook, wasn't sure, but he thought it may be beginning to drip. He had spent too much time listening to all that depressing information about spirochetes and gonococci, heart damage, brain disease and open sores. Still, here he was with the complete Medicine Show, working on the last few cuts of Dr. Hook's second albumrunning one more time through a song called "Looking for Pussy," to be included on the album which will be called Sloppy Seconds. Puerile faith, you say? Who needs this shit, you ask? Dr. Hook, say the image makers.
"Sylvia's Mother," some critics have argued, was the Love Story of rock, the archetypal Top 40 teen-age hit; a song with the most lachrymose set of lyrics since some bud went running back to the stalled car for her high-school ring and got smashed flat by the California Zephyr. The song has sold three-and-a-half million copies to date, was number one on the charts in America and Europe for months and even now tops the charts in Japan. You couldn't turn on the AM radio without hearing it. And nobody seems willing to forgive Dr. Hook. The BBC voted "Sylvia's Mother" the worst record in the history of pop music, according to Dennis.
When I called the image-makers to arrange an interview, I was told that Dr. Hook didn't want to be known as a one-hit, Top 40 group. As for "Sylvia's Mother," I was told, "They hate it as badly as you do." "We love Sylvia's Mother," Dennis said. As for top 40 aspirations, Dennis felt no compunctions about appearing on American Bandstand, lip-synching a gold record. "Listen," he says, "15 years I wanted to dance with those kids on American Bandstand." Ray Sawyer, the strutting eye-patched Dr. Hook of the group, had confidential information to add. "Dick Clark swore." Dick Clark did? "Before the show he said, What's this bullshit, who locked the fucking bathroom?'" Dennis, in the interest of decency, qualifies Ray's statement. "I don't think he actually said fucking.'" "He said bullshit', anyway." The show was one of those unqualified Bandstand disasters. The record spluttered and died, leaving the group mouthing silence and pounding dead instruments. Ray leapt into the crowd and ended up doing a frenzied dance in the midst of a crowd of rythmically clapping bandstanders. Even Dick Clark dissolved into laughter. "They cut that part," Dennis said ruefully. "Clark wasn't too bad, really. I think we were a little drunk."
"Did he ask you who your spokesman was," I wanted to know. "Yeah, that was the first thing he asked." "What did you say?" "We just kind of looked at one another. We didn't know. We were drunk." "What did Clark say then?" "He asked if the questions were too broad." Dr. Hook was originally one of those super competent, versatile lounge bands, a hard working group that played the bars in Union City, New Jersey. Dennis was on vocals and leads, Ray on vocals and bass, George Cummings on vocals and Hawaiian guitar, Bill Francis on keyboards and Jay David on drums and vocals. They played country & western, Top 40, "anything," Dennis says, "that would make them not hit us." Ray adds, "These were the kind of places were motorcycle cars would come on in and get really juiced. Then they'd fight over pretty girls in blond beehive hairdos. We usually found that if we played country & western stuff, it would stop the fights. We worked really hard on our country chops." "Hey," says Jay, "you ought to tell him about Wayne Tibbs." "Wayne," says Dennis, "was this drunk Texas truckdriver that came into this place in New Jersey where we were playing. It was called the Sands Lounge and it had plastic palm trees around the dance floor which pretty much describes what kind of place it was. Tibbs came over to Ray and said, You ever see what a shotgun does to a man's face?' Ray said he didn't know but he could guess. So this guy went over and got another drink and came back and told us that he was going to shoot someone that night. Later on he was out in the parking lot waiving a gun around and a cop shot him. The fantastic part' about it wasand I swear this is true, you can look it up in the papersas Wayne Tibbs was lying there on the ground bleeding, he looked up at the cop and said, Hey, that was a pretty good shot.'" "Anyway," Ray says, "we were getting a little tired of playing these bars."
They made a series of low quality tapes for a local manager who wanted to take them around to the record companies, maybe come back with a contract. This gentleman, in his search, met up with one Ron Haffkine, present manager and producer of Dr. Hook. "At the time," Ron explains, "I was doing the musical direction for a film called Who is Harry Kellerman and Why is He Saying All Those Terrible Things About Me? My long-time friend, Shel Silverstein, was writing the songs. This was early 1970. Well, I happened to run into this guy with the tapes and I asked him who it was. "Just some group," he said. "I think I'm going to dump them." I had some time, so I said I'd like to listen. As soon as I heard Dennis's voice, I knew they were the guys to do Shel's songs for Kellerman. There's somethingnow this may sound strange because Dennis is so verbally funny most of the timebut there's something gentle and soulful in his voice. Maybe the best word is depth'. His voice has an emotional depth that most other singers will just never have. "We rehearsed for a long time. Columbia bought the Kellerman soundtrack, but it was early 1971 before I brought the group into Columbia to Clive (Davis, president of CBC Records) could hear them. He suggested we do a big electric thing, but I thought it would be more natural for them to do a quiet, acoustic set in his office. Jay turned over a wastebasket and used it as a drum. Clive liked them and we started contract negotiations the next day." Shel Silverstein also liked them. Well-known as a feature cartoonist for Playboy (Shel Silverstein visits Fire Island, a nudist colony, the Haight-Ashbury), Shel also wrote Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue," The Irish Rovers' "The Unicorn," and Judy Collins' "The Hills of Shiloh." For some years he had been looking for someone to interpret his songs. Manager Haffkine had been a friend since the folky days, a dozen years previous, when both were singing in the coffee house circuit. "Actually," says Shel, "like a lot of musicians, we were singing primarily to get women. Ron sang Mexican songs and I sang dirty little songs." "Which meant," says Ron, " that I got all the romantic young things looking for spiritual relationships while Shel got all these nifty perverts." Silverstein heard the completed sound track for Kellerman and went out to New Jersey to see Dr. Hook. "It was a really sleazy bar, I remember. There was a revolving red light for psychedelic schmaltz and a fairly naked go-go chick shaking her ass around to "Last Morning," which was a supposedly personal, sensitive song I wrote for the movie. Even in that atmosphere, they brought it off." With the Columbia contract and Silverstein anxious for them to record his songs, Dr. Hook left New Jersey for Los Angelese. To flesh out their sound and give them extra versatility, they added Rik Elswit on lead and finger-picking guitar and Jance Garfat on bass. In the summer of 1971, they made a surprise appearance before the CBS Records Convention in Los Angeles. "We folded," Dennis says. Dr. Hook's stage presence was not, at the time, electrifying. They had never been into the kind of groupie-baiting pretensions generally associated with the idea of being in a rock band. They just seemed to like to sing together, to enjoy being on stage. Ron Haffkine began helping them mold their stage act. "It was mostly a process of freeing them up," he says. "We were on tour and sometimes we'd have to sit in a car for ten hours at a stretch and Dennis could sit there and entertain you with stories and voices. He can do any voice. I said, "Why don't you put that in your act?" Silverstein: "Dennis is one of the funniest people I've ever met. He constantly breaks me up, and nobody breaks me up." "At the time," Dennis says, " I wasn't sure I could do it. I spent about a month working up my rapping chops." Result: Onstage Dennis and Ray end up doing short, spontaneous, surreal monologues; very funny and absolutely in character. "At one time," Ray says, "we had this fantasy that were were being followed around by a one-armed man and every time we'd get two or three songs into a set, he'd stand up and scream boogie.' So Dennis worked up this number.." What he does is lead the band into a standard slow blues and sing "I'm a high flying eagle and I don't give a shit for you." Generally impromptu, the lyric describes the various ways an eagle can shit on such low-flying birds as the one-armed boogie screecher. Like a lot of things Dr. Hook does, on record and onstage, it's a put on but it's not a put-on. Like "Sylvia's Mother" there was, Shel Silverstein will tell you, an actual Sylvia. "I just changed the last name, not to protect the innocent, but because it didn't fit. It happened about eight years ago and was pretty much the way it was in the song. I called Sylvia and her mother said, She can't talk to you.' I said, Why not?' Her mother said she was packing and she was leaving to get married, which was a big surprise to me. The guy was in Mexico and he was a bullfighter and a painter. At the time I thought that was like being a combination brain surgeon and encyclopedia salesman. Her mother finally let me talk to her, but her last words were, Shel, don't spoil it.' "For about ten seconds I had this ego charge, as if I could have spoiled it. I couldn't have spoiled it with a sledge hammer." There's a postscript to the story: "Last Christmas I got a bad case of holiday melancholy and started calling everyone I knew. I called Sylvia's parents on the off-chance she might be home. I hadn't talked to her since that phone call years ago. She was home visiting and we talked a little bit. It turns out that she now lives in Paris and she has a couple of kids. I told her I wrote a song about her. She said No kidding, what label?'" The delicious quality of "Sylvia's Mother" (before it was played to death) was that the question it invariably brought to mind: Just where am I being put-on here? Silverstein obviously still isn't pining over this girl; and Dennis, of course, overplays the part quite purposely. It was to have been, one supposes, a partial parody of a Top 40 song. It was so entirely successful that many people missed the joke.
So here's Dr. Hook, all seven of them, at a studio called "the home of Sylvia's mother," working on songs like "Rocks Off", "Looking for Pussy," and "Freakin' at the Freakers Ball" (where the greatest of the sadists and the masochists' vie for attention with the rubber fiends and the pyromaniacs, Black ones, red ones/necrophiliacs looking for dead ones'. The album is almost designed to be kept out of the hands of the majority who bought "Sylvia's Mother". There is hardly a cut on the album that could be played on AM radio. Sloppy Seconds, then is apparently meant as a nudge in the ribs, a not so gentle "Get it?" to "Sylvia's Mother." Even the new single, "Rolling Stone," about a group of rock stars with "golden fingers" who have everything including a "genuine Indian guru teachin' us a better way." but can't get their picture on the cover of a music and news periodical, will probably not be herad on AM radio. One of the things they say they have in the song is "a freaky old lady nam of cocaine Katy." The phone rang and Ron picked it up. A friend was calling to say Bobby Darin, Debbie Reynolds, and Charles Nelson Reilly were about to do a parody of "Sylvia's Mother," on television. Everyone wanted to see it, but there was no set available. Finally one of the engineers agreed to hold the phone against his microphone and everyone else would go into the studio and listen to it over the studio screen. Debbie Reynolds, apparently, was Mrs. Avery. She sounded theatrically snooty and spoke her lines. One of the men was on the other end of the line. He could hardly talk, he was so choked up. "Please Mrs. Avery," we heard over the loudspeakers, "I just have to talk to her..." A wave of canned laughter. "I'll only keep her (sniff) a while..." More canned laughter. Ray Sawyer shook his head sadly. "How bizarre is this?" Dennis asked softly. "I mean how fucking bizarre is this?"
Reproduced from Rolling Stone Magazine November 9th 1972
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Thanks to Sarah Weinman for transcribing this article