Memories of the Boston scene, and the return of the inescapable Mr. Zanes

Back in the mid-’80s, I lived in Boston and wrote about the city’s rock scene for various local music magazines. To be more precise, there wasn’t one “scene” in Boston as much as there were bands in various genres, coexisting within the same framework but never really mixing together (not much different from the state of affairs in most other cities, of course). Pre-1989 Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland were all socialist Eastern-bloc nations, but the citizens of Hungary, for example, weren’t really aware of the conditions and culture in Poland, nor did they particularly care to learn. Similarly, in Boston garage rockers, hardcore punks, folkies and the dance-club crowd existed in their own little parallel universes, acting, at best, bemused but detached about the doings of Those Others in Those Questionable Clubs.

To read most of the local rags I wrote for, however, you’d think that garage-rock and punk was the main game in town; whether or not this was true, it was certainly the most entertaining. There were innovative, artistic, highly influential bands around (Mission of Burma being a primary example, not to mention the Pixies and Throwing Muses), but to this day, when I think of the Boston scene I think of groups like the Dogmatics, Outlets, Neighborhoods, Turbines and the kings of the garage scene, the Lyres (whose sound I later found out was heavily influenced, via leader Jeff “Monoman” Conolly, by the ’60s Dutch band The Outsiders). In short, they were the raucous faction immortalized probably best on CD in D.I.Y.: Mass. Ave.: The Boston Scene (1979-83). Fueled by beer, drugs (for some) and barbecue sauce (mainly at the Hoodoo Barbecue, the upstairs restaurant at Beantown’s punk ground zero, The Rat), dominated by young guys either from the “townie” working class or acting like they were (a surprising number were actually the offspring of college professors), the best of these bands had songwriter/performers who married a mordant, quirky sense of humor to a playing-for-keeps urgency. They burned with something to say, anything to say, and soon found a way to effectively express themselves in one manner or another. Almost all of them flamed or sputtered out, as is ever the way of rock bands; the members fought, split up, grew up, went back to school, changed careers. In a few cases, someone died. A handful of the bands soldiered on and remain together today, even if only on a part-time basis.

And then there were the Del Fuegos. I was never close to the Fuegos; I’d seen them a time or two and could take or leave them, but for a time they were inescapable if you followed the Boston rock scene at all. They started out around ’82 as raw and ragged as any other garage band of the time, but as the conventional wisdom went, they sold out, man; their sound became ever more sterile, measured and cautious once they signed to Warner Bros./Slash and appeared in a TV ad for Miller beer that totally destroyed any local or alt-rock cred they might have had up till then (the Young Fresh Fellows even immortalized the event in their song “Beer Money”); of course, these days such a move wouldn’t merit a second thought from anyone. If there was such a thing as “conservative alternative” or “mainstream alternative” rock, the Del Fuegos incarnated it. Plus, I thought the singers, led by guitarist Dan Zanes, sounded whiny. Fair or not, I hung up the phone on the Fuegos shortly afterwards and never thought of them again without an inward smirk.

Fast forward 20 years. Now that I’m married and living in a manicured suburb of Austin with two 23-month-old boys, which DVD do they want to watch over and over…and over…and over again but All Around the Kitchen! by Dan Zanes and his crew of photogenically ragtag, multicultural Friends. Ol’ Dan, setting forth from his Brooklyn stoop with crazier hair but the same basic schtick, in a violet suit, canary-yellow shirt and near-perpetual idiotic grin, is a 21st-century Pied Piper leading my toddler and yours (if you have or had, or are even just thinking about having one) on an adventure of silliness, imagination, frogs, ducks and you-just-might-learn-something. Even Zanes and friends’ outfits remind me of the thrift-shop chic of Allston-Brighton, a student/immigrant neighborhood just west of central Boston, and a key musicians’ stronghold back in the day.

It started when our son Leo (the even-tempered, cherubic one) couldn’t get enough of Zanes and Friends’ video “Smile, Smile, Smile,” which ran after our recording of the July 13 episode, on the Disney Channel, of Little Einsteins (or “ah-DASS!” to Leo’s brother, the vocal, in-your-face, playful and assertive Luka). Mrs. Pogoer and I soon found that it was the only surefire way to calm the boys down during diaper changes or at bedtime; I even burned a CD with the “Smile” song repeated 25 times, which we sometimes play to lull them to sleep.

“Mr. Dan” soon trumped Elmo on the twins’ hit parade (which was fine by us, even if it didn’t last); he even got Leo over his fixation with Marlee Matlin signing words and songs on two Baby Einstein videos (though Luka still likes to sign along with her during “Twinkle, Twinkle”). I was harder to win over; in conversations with my wife, I referred to Zanes as “Mr. Beer Money,” called him “Dylan with a lobotomy” and reacted to the scenes of him answering the doorbell and waving his guests inside by remarking, “C’mon in, kids, I’ve got plenty of Miller in the fridge for ya.” (Mrs. Pogoer will confirm that I can, at times, be a bit cranky. I still occasionally sing Zanes’s lyrics back at him in an exaggerated Dylanesque whine, which Mrs. Pogoer would love for me to cease forthwith.)

Bowing to the inevitable, I eventually broke down and bought the damn DVD, free poster and bookmark included. So, whether I want him to be or not, Dan Zanes is back in my life in a big way. In truth, I have to admit that most of his stuff is actually pretty good. I was initially surprised at how positively both boys reacted to him: Luka is particularly enamored of the title song, “All Around the Kitchen,” in which Dan and his musical buddies imitate strutting roosters and shout “cock-a-doodle-doo!” After the song ends, Luka will come up to me or Mommy and implore, “more ‘doo…??” And Leo will break into a huge smile, giggle and run to the tube upon seeing the Jamaican-flavored cartoon, “Go Down Emmanuel Road” (which just may end up being the thing that teaches them to count from 1 to 5) or “House Party Time.”

As that tune and “All Around the Kitchen” illustrate, a continuing subtext of the songs is the fact that the listeners are assumed to be usually housebound (barring the odd excursion to see Dan and his band). Whether you’re a toddler who’s just learning to be comfortable outside the boundaries of your home, or once-hip parents who, though you may have been world travelers in your time, are resigned to rarely being able to get farther than the supermarket these days, Zanes says to you, “Housebound? So what? Make the best of it; get a group of wacky-looking friends together, play music and dance all over…the house. Go all the way out into the guest room, if you want!” There are six studio videos on the DVD (the boys like all but the last, the moany ballad “Wanderin'”) and a fine concert video of a show at New York’s Knitting Factory in 2004 (featuring Rankin’ Don’s rap of the Alphabet Song/”Twinkle, Twinkle,” which of course share the same melody, though I swear I never cared to notice this before; come to think of it, so does “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” which they also cover. It’s a long way from Marlee and Baby Einstein.)

Zanes has traveled a circuitous path, but he really hasn’t strayed as far from his roots as you might think. Listening today to the Del Fuegos’ 1984 debut LP — remember LPs? — The Longest Day, with the impossibly young-looking Zanes and bandmates on the cover (23 years ago, egad!), one can hear the child-friendly goofster concealed in the songcraft of the serious-looking twentysomething. Two decades on, Zanes has become what he was always destined to be. Doing songs for kids and their families, delving into shambling, Seeger-esque trad “folkie” songs, is a much better-fitting glove for him than burgeoning rock-star-on-the-make, after the beer money. (Ultimately, it was also more successful.) Parents who like to think of themselves as hip can console themselves that this music comes from a much more “real” place than the sterilized world of Baby and Little Einsteins (though I’ll allow that these too have a valid place in a kid’s universe).

Sorry, Dan won’t play your kid’s birthday party or mine. He does, however, recommend rounding up some friends and making some music yourself. “Fill your head with songs and start a family band!” he advises on the DVD’s inside cover. “Gather together with neighbors and sing until long after dark!…Music brings us together so we can all laugh, cry, dance with wild abandon and when it’s over have a good night’s sleep.”

Doesn’t sound that bad to me. Zanes, all is forgiven.

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