Graded on a Curve: Vivian Stanshall,
Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead

An eccentric in the great English tradition, Vivian Stanshall was a one-man Monty Python before there was a Monty Python. Together with some friends he founded the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, a free-wheeling musical/comedy ensemble that threw everything they could lay their hands on (trad jazz, music hall, psychedelic pop, lunacy) into a Bunsen burner, then fled the room to escape the explosion.

Stanshall was one of no kind—a hyperactive, hypo-literate, hypo-witty master of the bon mot. “If I had all the money I’d spent on drink,” he once said, ‘I’d spend it on drink.” Stanshall’s work with the Bonzo Dog Band—that Doo-Dah is maddening—showed him to be a master satirist of England’s stuffy elite. He’s the man who sent up the rich English sportsman in “Tiger Hunting in India” (“But look at you! You’re shaking like a leaf!/ Shaking?/ You silly goose/ I’m just doing the Watusi.”). He also gave us “Mr. Apollo” (“Five years ago I was a four-stone apology/ Today I am two separate gorillas”) and the hilarious mock band introduction “The Intro and the Outro” (“And looking very relaxed, Adolf Hitler on vibes. Nice!”).

A series of unfortunate events (two disastrous US tours, personnel changes, and Stanshall’s less amusing mental problems) led to the Bonzos’ dissolution in 1970, and four years (during which he participated on numerous side projects) would pass before he released his 1974 debut Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead. Two years in the making, the LP makes apparent two things. First, that Stanshall’s screwball humor had taken on a darker hue. And two, that he’d traded in the Bonzo’s unpredictable quirkiness for a more straightforward music with an African ambience. Stanshall, it seems, had gone native.

The LP features the likes of Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi, and Ric Grech. But the LP’s exotic world music feel is the result of six percussionists, two of them identified only as “Unidentified West Indian taxi driver” and “Unidentified West Indian taxi driver’s friend.” The percussion is apparent on such grooves as the instrumentals “Prong” and “Prong and Toots Go Steady,’ as well as on “Red Eye,” “How the Zebra Got His Spots,” “Lakonga,” “Afoju Ti Ole Riran,” and “Baba Tunde.”

The band’s tight throughout, but Stanshall’s characteristic wit is in short supply, and he often sounds more bitter than anything else. He also reveals his fragile mental state in “Strange Tongues” with its “Strange tongues comfort me/ Darkened rooms calm me down/ Make overtures to your insanity/ Great to have friends around.” There is nothing funny about this; Stanshall sounds like a man drowning in desperation.

“Bout of Sobriety” is also of a darker cast. Accompanied by a breakneck piano and fiddle, Stanshall sings “Trying real hard/ Think I’ve served my time/ In the purple-stained arms of the daughter of the vine/ I’d like to settle down but first I gotta settle up/ With the understanding man in the embalming fluid shop.” He does his best to make the song sound like a joke but it rings hollow; that said, it includes one of Stanshall’s most famous bon mots: “If you’re normal,” he quips, “I want to be a freak for the rest of my life.”

On only two songs is Stanshall at his brilliant comedic best. “Yelp, Bellow, Rasp Et Cetera” is a slow blues in which Stanshall makes a series of noises (belch, fit of coughing and so on) and disconnected absurdist comments along the lines of “Don’t fade me out you… beasts.” But even it has its dark side, as when he says, “Commit me mama, they’re trying to commit me!”

“Dwarf Succulents” is a spoken-word post-coital Q&A directed at a very relaxed and self-satisfied Stanshall:

“Like a little snowstorm paper weight?” asks his partner:

“Mmmm. Heavy, secure.”

“Like a Sunday dinner?”

“Mindless. Blown.”

And so it goes until he asks how it was for her.

“So-so” she replies.

Vivian Stanshall—a larger-than-life loon in the style of Keith Moon (the two were partners in mischief) once quipped “Frankly, once I’ve eaten a thing, I don’t expect to see it again.” To stretch a comparison past its lawful limits, we’ll never see the likes of Stanshall again. It would be nice to see him making “Shirt,” a send-up of “the man in the street interviews” conducted by fellow band member Larry “Legs” Smith, who stopped people to ask them about their tastes in, well you know.

The results are hilarious, but the story of its making is even funnier—the measured responses of the interviewees are quite remarkable given Smith was accompanied by a Stanshall clad only in a pair of dirty undershorts and a papier mache rabbit’s head. The man was fearless, brilliant, and evidently had a paper-mache rabbit’s head on hand. He also had a tuba on hand, and once walked into a pub wearing nothing but his dressing gown and proceeded to play it in exchange it for free drinks.

But there was a vulnerable and psychically damaged man behind his many layers of surrealistic savoir faire. If it’s true, as he once said, that “Fear is the root of all courage,” Vivian Stanshall must have been one very frightened man. “I was really pretty sick at the time I made it,” said Stanshall of Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead. “It’s one long squawk. It’s a fairly articulate squawk…it’s very personal in places.” He then added, “It seems to me that at that point I was inevitably plunging into the abyss.”

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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