Just as The Doors and David Bowie were my constant companions-in-solitude during the earlier phases of the pandemic and the presidential campaign from hell, I find myself listening nonstop to Vivaldi and Primus now that we — hopefully — are on a downward slope. They are an odd couple to say the least. That Vivaldi appeals at the moment is, I think, pretty transparent: he is the baroque harbinger of seasonal change and tranquil renewal. It is hard to listen to Vivaldi without experiencing calmness and serenity.
You can’t say that of Primus. You might say it is hard to listen to them, period. But you’d be wrong.
My first exposure to Primus was way before my trans egg cracked — in 1992, I think, during U2’s “Zoo Station” tour, at their Yankee Stadium gig. The acoustics of the Old Stadium were somewhere between putrid and diabolical, and we of course had our pricey seats in the upper tier of left field, where the reverb was incessant, and the non-digital echo never decayed. When Primus opened for U2, the sonic experience was akin to putting your head in a dumpster and having someone hit the outsides with tympani mallets. My wife said that the opening act for U2 should rename themselves PU. She screamed “you suck!” before “Primus sucks!” became the official cry of affection by their fans. She went to her grave detesting them with a passion. I understood why.
Being a perverse sort and realizing that U2 did not sound that much better at the show, I decided to give Sailing the Seas of Cheese and Pork Soda a second-chance listen. It took a while, but I warmed up to them, and quickly became a devotee. They are a challenging listen, but a rewarding one, for two reasons.
First, they are utterly un-pigeonhole-able. They are too funky to be metal, too metal to be funk, too un-bluesy and complicated to be hard rock, to unrestrained and loose to be prog. They will often put down their guitars and basses and octopus-drum-kits to play ditties on banjo, mandolin, and washtub bass. They use dissonance as often as they use intricate melodic counterpoint. They do bear some resemblance to Discipline era King Crimson — listen to “Jerry Was a Race-car Driver” and “Elephant Talk” in sequence and you’ll hear what I mean — but lack Crimson’s deadpan approach to their music.
Which leads me to my second point: Primus has a persistent sense of lyrical and vocal humor, sometimes in complete contrast to the melodies and arrangement. I often thought that Robert Fripp was Frank Zappa without a sense of humor. If so, then Les Claypool is Frank Zappa in a giant pig costume.
Contrary to popular opinion, bassist Claypool is not Primus’s standout musician. Drummer Tim Alexander could hold his own against Danny Carey of Tool or — going out on a limb here — the late Neal Peart. Guitarist Larry LaLonde is underrated: he holds back, like Tool’s Adam Jones, for the sake of the music, but can wail and shred with the best of them. Joe Satriani was his teacher, after all. But it is Claypool’s wack-a-doodle vocal style, and his antics on stage and in their videos that make all the difference. He’s the center of attraction and Primus’s heart and soul.
About the oddball vocals. Here’s a thought experiment for you: imagine “John the Fisherman” or “My Name is Mud” as sung by, say, Paul Rogers or Mick Jagger or James Hetfield. Now that would suck. Why? Because their voices do not laugh. They shout, they exude sexual energy, they express anger and regret and alienation. They do not express ironic laughter. Or, for that matter, non-ironic laughter. By not being what you’d expect, Claypool’s vocalizations turn what would ordinarily be finely crafted songs, with exquisite musicianship, but easily consigned to the aural background, into something that will make you perk up and notice.
True, Primus can be relentlessly manic — it is hard to listen to their CDs back to back without inserting a Vivaldi break here and there. Their earlier work is superior to their later stuff — which is, I think true of almost any band that has stuck around for a while, and which is evidence that while philosophers and novelists usually peak late in life, musicians and mathematicians peak early. Claypool also seems, lately, to be saving his better stuff for his side projects — again, not an uncommon trait for established musicians. But Claypool’s home base is and always will be Primus.
They are, however, endearingly eccentric, in a very American way, as American as the Bonzo Dog Band were English. Living as I do in that bizarro-world called America 2020, I am happy to lend them an ear.
But I think I will put on Vivaldi next.