The boys from This is Spinal Tap got together virtually on Wednesday, 14 October to benefit the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. As a musician and a child of the ’80s, this is a seminal film for me. So before I tell you about the livestream, please indulge me as I share my Spinal Tap story.
I was in college at Michigan State on Friday, 2 March 1984 when This is Spinal Tap was released. Earlier in that week my roommate and I read in the State News that a rock documentary was to be shown in East Lansing. (Hard to believe now, but back then there weren’t that many rock music documentaries.) We had plans to hit up some parties later that night, so we decided to walk up the street to the State Theater and catch the early show and then grab some dinner.
It had been warm during the day with an early-spring feel. We twisted one up and smoked it on the balcony. It was a short walk up to the theater and we were soon settled in with Cokes and peanut M&Ms. So, the lights go down and we’re really fucking high. The film kicks off with Marty DiBergi, the filmmaker, wearing an egg-yolk Navy cap and introducing the film.
Keep in mind that this is Rob Reiner’s first film as a director, and he hadn’t done a lot of acting since All in the Family wrapped in 1978. So, I’m kind of like, “I recognize that guy.” And the thing goes on but I’m really not sure what the fuck this is. And I’m looking at the band, and David St Hubbins looks familiar (is that Lenny from Laverne & Shirley?). And I’m watching, and I’m starting to figure it out (are these guys really playing the tunes?). Because, I mean there had been zero buzz about this film; it was the first screening in town on its opening day and we came in cold on the concept. After all, This is Spinal Tap pioneered mockumentary (apologies to The Rutles).
So, we walk out of the theater, and I say to my roommate, “So, did you like it?” And he’s kind of sheepish and says, “Yeah.” And I’m like, “Me too. It was hilarious!” And he’s all, “Oh shit, I didn’t think you liked it, ’cause you never laughed or anything.” And I go, “Yeah, you didn’t either. I thought you didn’t like it.” We had just both been so in our own little high-dog worlds that we were nonplussed – had no idea how to react.
I actually came into this virtual reunion similarly clueless. I thought it was going to be a virtual table read, like the Princess Bride thing they did last month to benefit Wisconsin Dems. I was wondering if they were going to actually perform the tunes. I tweeted at Michael McKean (@MJMcKean), could they please do “Hell Hole” as “Shit Hole?”
It turned out to be literally a Zoom call. Patton Oswalt (upper-left corner), striking a nice balance between fanboy and memory-jogger, hosted Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer. Some special guests joined the meeting; Ed Begley, Fran Drescher, Billy Crystal and Paul Shaffer all patched in. Patton set up clips from the film and the guys kibitzed about them. It was kind of like watching them record a commentary track for the Blu-ray bonus features.
Rob Reiner (upper-right corner) kicked it off, explaining that Spinal Tap was originally a Wolfman Jack parody sketch with himself as the Wolfman. It also featured industry vets Loudon Wainwright III on keyboards and Russell Kunkel on drums (what? Jim Keltner wasn’t available?).
They were all musicians and agreed that the music had to be good. “There’s nothing funny about bad music,” according to Harry Shearer, who was a quip machine from his bottom-right corner position.
Michael McKean (lower middle) exuded obvious affection for the whole affair. He seemingly remembers every detail of the process, and was charmingly gracious mentioning many people who contributed to the film.
I loved the shout-outs to the late Fred Willard. Christopher Guest (from the lower-left corner) admitted that he couldn’t stop “breaking” in the scene with Fred at the Air Force base. Patton ran the clip that they ultimately used, and you can tell Chris is hanging back on the verge of cracking up.
Chris in turn broke Rob with his “You can’t dust for vomit.” Reiner lost it so badly they couldn’t use the take and had to re-shoot.
Rob informed us that Sting tested for Princess Bride. It was a throw-away comment, but I was like, “Wait… what?”
I didn’t know that 13 bass players played “Big Bottom” on stage at Wembley Stadium in London in 2007, including the likes of Adam Yauch, Nate Mendell from Foo Fighters, Metallica (minus Lars) and a bunch of guys who were in Madonna (“Eventually everybody does Madonna,” quipped David St Hubbins). There was also a shout-out to “Skippy Scuffleton” on bass drums, “Pray for him!” Joe “Mama” Besser, Tap’s most recent drummer, can surely relate.
Apparently, Creem magazine didn’t get it. They initially gave the film a bad review, then amended their position after they figured it out. I can relate (see above).
Christopher Guest shared a story of attending the NAMM pro audio show at which an amplifier company rep showed him volume knobs that went “past 11, to like 30 or something.” To which Harry Shearer replied, “At the NAMM show, if someone shows you their knob, just walk away.”
I loved the detail from the filming process that they spent an 18-hour day doing all the live venue shoots for the film. They did five different venue shoots around LA, with the same 50 extras constituting each crowd.
For his Derek Smalls BDSM-inspired costume, Harry confessed that he went to The Pleasure Chest in West Hollywood to find his signature leather truss. He was advised that “they’re over there, between the butt plugs and ball stretchers.” Somebody proceeded to quip that The Butt Plugs used to open for The Ball Stretchers. Harry also revealed that the vegetable in the foil condom was actually a zucchini, not a cucumber. He probed further, explaining that a cucumber is “too knobbly” to approximate a penis. (Editor’s Note: It never has sat right with this publication that the zucchini is wrapped in tin foil, but Harry contends it’s a “spoilage” issue.)
We also learned that the cold sores in the Bobbi Flekman scene are remnants of a gag that involved an all-female opening act (fronted by Cherie Currie of The Runaways) called The Dose. I’m pretty sure no further detail is required.
In a life-imitating-art-imitating-life moment, the band were honored to play at Royal Albert Hall in London, but their Stonehenge monument was too big and couldn’t fit into the Hall. (Anjelica Huston, who played the designer of the tiny triptych “in danger of being trod upon by a dwarf,” can relate.)
In a scheduling quirk, Tap were slated as the opener at a gig at Gazzarri’s, a nightclub on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. Apparently the headliners, Iron Butterfly, “had a dentist appointment or something,” so they actually ended up opening for Tap.
Christopher Guest shared a story that he said perfectly encapsulated life on the road. He walked into his motel room at like 4 in the morning, and “there was a guy sitting on the bed eating potato salad with a toothbrush.”
Paul Shaffer entered the meeting with a most Shafferian, “It’s a gas to be here with you kids!” He explained that his Artie Fufkin (Polymer Records) was a composite of many advance men that he’s known throughout his career. “A guy’ll come up to me and say, ‘I’m the Artie Fufkin of the Pacific Northwest’ and he’s proud of it.” He also said he was surprised that there was no script. “I’m not asking I’m telling with this,” was all Paul.
Director Reiner confided that the original cut of the film was over four hours, not including three hours of interview footage he hadn’t added yet. A seven hour This is Spinal Tap director’s cut? Make it so, please!
Patton correctly opined that This is Spinal Tap is “part of the vernacular – a miraculous film.” Led by Christopher Guest, these guys and many other great artists went on to hilariously spoof all kinds of archetypes in a string of phenomenal mockumentaries.
Lest we forget that this event was a political fundraiser. Rob appropriately summed up the night, musing, “The idea that this film could help save democracy…” Michael asked, “Are we going to address the elephant in the White House?” The guys made an impassioned plea for all of us to vote, and Harry closed it out with a call to abolish the Electoral College.
I’d like to be able to show you a couple clips, or direct you to where you can find a recording of the event to watch, but it was just too exclusive. Even the email that I received with the link to join the livestream has vanished. I thought someone might’ve filmed some of it on their phone and posted to YouTube. Nope. If they did, it has been pulled down already. So, you’re welcome for this public service. If you’d like to know how much I donated to the Penn Dems, you guessed it – $11.
But enough of my yackin’, let’s give Nancy Patton Mills, the chairperson of the Pennsylvania Democratic party, the last word. She declared, “We will make Donald Trump smell the glove!”