That's a sidebar at the end. I didn't get Guest to talk to me. And maybe I didn't try Shearer, which is strange, since I've interviewed him a couple other times (he's as fascinating as you'd expect him to be).
Oh, yeah, and about that whole "performing at a party" conceit? Rob and I chickened out. At least I got some advice out of it.
Michael McKean & Annette O’Toole
Kiss and Tell
by Pamela Murray Winters
You’re going to a party where everyone has to perform a piece of music. And you haven’t touched a guitar since you struggled through “500 Miles” in fifth-grade music class. What better source than A Mighty Wind, the 2003 comedy about a reunion of 60s folksingers of, uh, diverse levels of talent, with music performed by actors (Parker Posey, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara) not generally thought of as musicians? What better selection than Mitch & Mickey’s signature ballad, “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow”? And who better to give advice than actress-turned-songwriter Annette O’Toole?
“Just remember that Eugene is singing the melody, and it’s really beautiful,” said O’Toole, in a phone call from the Vancouver set of “Smallville,” the hit series on which she plays Clark Kent’s mom. “ ’Cause when we sing the song” — “we” being O’Toole and her husband and “Kiss” co-composer, Michael McKean – “I sing the melody. It makes the song sound very different. But as Michael says, that’s what folk music is all about, is taking a song that you hear and doing it in your own way. So they do a beautiful version of it in the movie, but a lot of people think Catherine’s singing the melody. So when you do it, you sing the melody!”
2003 was a banner year for folk music in film. The Academy Award nominations for best original song in a motion picture gave the nod to mountain music, cabaret, Celtic, and 60s-troubadour sounds. When O’Toole and McKean talked about their nascent songwriting career, it was well before the announcement that one of their maiden efforts — “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” — would be nominated for an Oscar. “Kiss” was one of over a dozen faux-folk gems created for A Mighty Wind by its cast and associates, making the film a landmark of folk — albeit in the same shambling, smile-tweaking way that Big Boy is a landmark in vernacular architecture.
What most moviegoers don’t realize is that McKean — the man behind Wind’s Jerry Palter (think Fairport Convention’s Simon Nicol with less talent, less genuine hair, and more vanity), This Is Spinal Tap’s David St. Hubbins (think Palter with more fake hair, more amperage, and tighter pants), and a host of other iconic characters — goes as far back with the folk scene as the characters in his film.
“I think I wrote my first songs when I was 14 or 15, around there,” McKean explained. “And y’know, I was a big folkie, a big Bob Dylan fan, loved Phil Ochs and people who wrote songs about stuff that was actually happening in the news. I used to read Broadside and Sing Out! and, even more obscure, the Little Sandy Review, which was — I think it was based in Milwaukee, or Madison, maybe. And it was a very academic, very angry paper. Anyone who looked like they might even try on a Kingston Trio shirt in a store got a scathing review! It was about keeping this folk thing on track. So I read a lot of that stuff and, like I said, really admired Phil Ochs and, of course, the older stuff like Woody Guthrie and all that Almanac Singers stuff.”
McKean took the messages to heart: “I wrote a lot of what I thought was terribly groundbreaking, terribly brave — for a 14-year-old — very left-wing stuff. So I did a lot of that, and then when I was in my teens, I wrote some rock ’n’ roll. I was with a couple of bands.”
But his music career wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without comedy. At 22, McKean arrived in Los Angeles and soon became the resident songwriter for a comedy group, the Credibility Gap, which numbered among its members Harry Shearer and David L. Lander. “I kind of was the new guy with the guitar… I became more and more comedic.” When the group needed a musical laugh, McKean was always at the ready: “I always had a guitar, and I was always doing new stuff like that. Mostly parodies.”
McKean and Lander eventually jumped ship to play Lenny and Squiggy on Laverne & Shirley, but they didn’t stop performing: “[Lenny and the Squigtones] actually put out a record on Casablanca…We and Mac Davis were the only non-disco acts on that label.” And the somewhat-heavy-metal Spinal Tap, immortalized on film in 1984, was born in 1978 for a sketch on a Rob Reiner TV special. Later, “when Rob was looking for a feature film to do, to get his feature career under way, we did This Is Spinal Tap. We made a scenario and then improvised the film, but all of the songs were written in that style, that heavy-metal style. We all wrote all of them, in various combinations.”
So it was with A Mighty Wind, a film that featured the Folksmen, whose Palter, Alan Barrows, and Mark Shubb bore a slight resemblance to Tap’s David St. Hubbins, Nigel Tufnel, and Derek Smalls. (McKean and cohorts Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer once opened a Spinal Tap show as the Folksmen and were booed off the stage — perhaps a high accolade.) The experience of making This Is Spinal Tap influenced Guest in his later work as a director, on Wind and other films. On Waiting for Guffman (1996) and Best in Show (2000), Guest and co-writer Levy developed their improvisation-within-a-framework style.
McKean says that the key to success in such films is “parodying the form” but also “staying true enough to the form that you believe, with some quarter of your brain, that this could actually be happening...[that] ‘Potato’s in the Paddy Wagon’ could have sold more than one copy.”
Ah, yes — O’Toole’s maiden songwriting effort. On a drive from Los Angeles to Vancouver in September 2001, where truth, justice, and the American way demanded that “Smallville” go on filming even when the planes were grounded, O’Toole got a tune stuck in her head.
“Somewhere, we think between Portland and Seattle, somewhere in there, I had this melody in my head I couldn’t shake,” she explained. “It was ‘da-da-da da-da-da-da-da da-da-da-da’ over and over and over again until I wanted to scream. So I said, ‘Michael, what is this I’m singing in my head — did I just hear this somewhere?’ He said, ‘I think you may have made that up. I think it’s new.’ So we liked the little silly melody, and we put words to it just to kind of hold the melody till we got to a musical instrument, and it was ‘Potato’s in the Paddy Wagon.’ And then we decided we liked that phrase so much that we had to write a song about it.”
“Just to justify that phrase’s existence,” McKean added.
“So ‘Potato’s in the Paddy Wagon,’ which of course was originally a fine russet, became a girl. I said, well, there’s got to be a girl named Potato, and it’s Potato-apostrophe-s, Potato is in the paddy wagon.” They tried out the song on Chris Guest, “who loved it and wanted to put it in A Mighty Wind for the New Main Street Singers, because it seemed just insane enough for that group.”
Besides “Potato” and “Kiss,” McKean and O’Toole — who doesn’t appear in the movie — wrote the New Main Street Singers’ “Fare Away,” a fast-flowing flotsam-load of nautical terms set against a chantey tune, with Wind’s music producer, CJ Vanston. Other songs in the film include the oppressively catchy Folksmen near-hit “Old Joe’s Place,” by Guest, Shearer, and McKean; the inspirational title track, by Levy, Guest, and McKean; and Mitch & Mickey’s poignant “When You’re Next to Me,” written by Levy.
Levy’s Internet Movie Database bio reveals his little-known musical past: The SCTV alum was in the original Toronto cast of “Godspell” and sang as part of the group Northern Lights on the We Are the World album. But many of the Wind-ers were musical neophytes, including Catherine O’Hara and Parker Posey, who learned autoharp and mandolin, respectively, for the film. Seeing Posey’sinstrument prompted O’Toole to take it up, as part of her growing interest in songwriting.
She was already a singer. A veteran of musical theater as well as film, who began acting at 13, she was in a stage production of Vanities in 1981 when she was offered a role in a TV biography of Tammy Wynette. Then in her 20s, “I was kind of the right age to go down to her teens and then up to her advanced age, at the time, of 38,” she said with heavy irony.
“They flew me to Las Vegas, where Tammy was appearing…And she was just wonderful and delightful and just such a great person. And I said, ‘You know, I’ll do this’ — but Sissy Spacek had just played Loretta Lynn, and I said, ‘I sing. I’d really like to do the singing. I know this is presumptuous and sounds egotistical, but I can sound like Tammy enough to do it. And if you have a problem with it, of course you can dub it.’ This was why I really had to meet Tammy — for her to give me the okay and hear me sing.
“So I stood on the stage of this hotel, during her soundcheck, and she sat in the audience, and I sang ‘Stand By Your Man’ for her. I’ve never been that scared! I’ve never — yeah, I guess, since then I may have been almost that scared. But my arms — I didn’t have any arms or legs. I felt like I was just this head. This singing head. That’s how scared I was!
“And I sang, and it went okay, and she was just gracious and wonderful. She said, oh, yes, she can do it. And then I kinda spent the rest of the day with her, and just kinda sat in her dressing room and watched what she did, and watched her, and talked to her, and sat out in the audience and watched her show. She started with ‘Rocky Top’ — which I can now actually play and sing on the mandolin, which is very exciting — and got her okay and went back, and like a week later, we started working.”
A love for music is part of the couple’s common ground; O’Toole recalled realizing that the two were in love while Van Morrison was singing “Have I Told You Lately?” at a May 1998 concert. They married in 1999.
“I’ve been writing songs all my life,” McKean mused. “The last two years, Annette has become this amazing songwriter. I knew I married well, but…” O’Toole laughed. “I didn’t know that—”
“Well, I didn’t either,” she replied. “That’s the amazing thing.”
McKean drew on his wife’s newfound gifts for “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow.” “[Guest] asked Michael to write a song for Mitch & Mickey to sing that would be their signature song throughout their career, and the only stipulation was it had to have a kiss in it — that was the moment there was going to be a kiss. So Michael came home and said, ‘Do you want to write this song with me?’ and I said ‘Sure.’ And I think we may have written it that day.”
McKean remembered differently. “I think we wrote most of it that day and then later on—”
“—We did some finishing touches,” O’Toole concluded.
“I remember — it was almost completed, and we had some errand to run out in Santa Monica. I just remember us in Santa Monica in the car, waiting for the kids or something, and coming up with the ‘tales of ancient glory’ verse.”
“Oh, that’s interesting,” O’Toole said slowly, “ ’cause I remember that differently. I remember doing the ‘tales of ancient glory’ standing at the piano. Well, maybe that was another part of it.”
They shrugged — or so it seemed, over the phone — and described the commonplace aspects of their collaboration. “We write a lot while we’re walking the dog,” McKean allowed.
“I write a lot walking in Stanley Park [in Vancouver],” said O’Toole. “It goes through my head — things will happen to me, and I’ll come home and call him. And he’ll of course be able to put it down. I can now play the mandolin well enough to work out a melody on it. So I can use that now.”
What they don’t have plans to do is record together. Although many actors have developed credible sidelines as musicians — the couple’s friend (and Bonnie Raitt’s ex) Michael O’Keefe being one — McKean is cognizant of the pitfalls.
“We’re kind of quote-unquote celebrities. And when an album comes out with two people who are known primarily not for singing, but for something else, William Shatner comes into our mind. And the rest of the cast of ‘Star Trek.’ It’s that ‘Is this a gimmick? Is this a novelty record? Is this Lorne Greene does Walt Whitman? What is this?’ ”
They are contemplating writing for other performers. “We have sent our songs out to different people,” said O’Toole.
McKean said: “We have a song that we wrote, and we were just kind of singing it for the third or fourth time, and we both had the same brainstorm: ‘Can you imagine Norah Jones doing this song? Oh, my God, she’d be great.’ Now about a million people are having that idea every day, because who wouldn’t want Norah Jones’ next album to have one of your songs on it? You’d be a millionaire. She’s this wonderful interpreter, and her last album sold a zillion copies, and the next one will, too. And it’s a great thing. But it’s a highly competitive thing, and all we can do is try. We’re still breaking this act in. It’s just two years down the line now.”
So they’ve gotten a publisher for their songs, they do the occasional small gig (no word yet on who’ll be performing “Rainbow” on the Oscar telecast), and when they’re not working on acting projects, they’re collaborating on a movie musical, with all original songs, about which their desire for secrecy only barely trumps their enthusiasm.
Songwriting, said O’Toole, is “almost like an acting exercise for me. Maybe that’s why I’m able to do it, because I’ve been acting so long. You just kind of put yourself in the emotional place of this person singing the song and it just seems to come out, melodically and lyrically. That’s just the way I think about it.”
McKean’s songwriting model is Hoagy Carmichael, whose composing method is similar to much of McKean’s comedy experience: “I think that he just had the best, the loosest idea of what a song is supposed to be. There’s this kind of a classical uniform for a lot of the other great songwriters, and they’re no less great for all that. Rodgers and Hart, and Hammerstein, and the Gershwins. There was a kind of formality to them. Whereas Carmichael had sort of this real loose kind of ‘I’m makin’ this up as I go along, but I couldn’t possibly be because it’s too perfect.’ So that’s what I always admired about him.”
Closer to the folk realm, O’Toole enthused about the Richard Thompson songs on the latest Del McCoury album, and McKean added: “I’m a firm believer in Richard Thompson as a source for almost anyone. I think he writes the best songs now. I think Richard and Elvis Costello and Loudon Wainwright have everybody else in the foyer, waiting to get in.”
“We’re in there!” said O’Toole excitedly. “We’re in the foyer!”
“We’re in the foyer!” her husband agreed, boldly.
O’Toole grew suddenly modest. “Well, you are, definitely. I’m still out in the street.”
Wasn’t That a Time?
After tackling community theater and dog shows in Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, what led Christopher Guest to take on folk music? McKean said he’d heard Guest’s answer “about a thousand times”: “There is something about the earnestness with which people attack things that makes them sometimes amusing. And there’s no superiority in it — I think that A Mighty Wind is a very affectionate movie. Hopefully it comes across that way, because that’s exactly how it was meant. And even though Chris was a big folk-music fan, he was kind of more in the bluegrass pocket. And I was really into kind of the protest and the ‘we’re gonna change the world with this stuff’ attitude. But we both loved it and played it and really did it and lived it, to some extent.”
What distinguished the groups in the film wasn’t talent, or lack thereof: “The characters in this film are all kind of the commercial folkies. They’re all the ones who really had an eye on the chart rather than the prize, if you know what I mean.
“The most direct parallels with the Folksmen would be Kingston Trio or the Limeliters. Very talented people, good singers, and also good song hunters — they came up with great songs. The Limeliters probably had more of a sense of — they were more cabaret, and they would do a Flanders and Swann song like ‘Madeira, M’Dear,’ or other contemporary, deliberately funny songs. Kingston Trio, same thing — they did ‘Charlie on the MTA’ — which, by the way, is still the biggest-selling folk record.
“With Mitch & Mickey — Ian and Sylvia, I guess, Richard and Mimi Fariña, Jim and Jean. And again, Ian and Sylvia was a real folk act, quote-unquote. But they had commercial hits. And their relationship was kind of important. The New Main Street Singers, probably the most crassly commercial angle — the Serendipity Singers, Back Porch Majority. New Christy Minstrels, of course. The Randy Sparks army. It’s like, way too many people with way too many guitars and way too many smiles. It evolved into that kind of Up With People, the musical arm of the Republican Party kind of thing.
“So they all had this kind of more commercial slant. And that’s really what the parody is. It’s about regaining something that you lost. And, in the case of two of these acts, it’s really about ‘let’s get on the charts again.’ With Mitch & Mickey, or with Mitch specifically, it’s about ‘help me find my heart. Help me find my brain.’ There’s something about that act that’s got a little something more than just ‘let’s see if we can get on top again.’ ”