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Bill Beckett

This 1993 photo captures notable New Haven hardcore stalwart Jim Martin, of Broken and Malachi

Punk Uke

The four-string Underdog rudely rocks.

August 14, 2003 by Christopher Arnott New Haven Advocate

The guitar part to the garage classic "96 Tears" has four chords: two for the verse and two for the revenge-rant "when the sun comes out, I'll be on top" bridge. In the original 1966 recording by ? and the Mysterians, the song gets its menace from a driving organ riff and psychedelic Tex-Mex guitar swirls. Playing the song on a ukulele--that rinky-tink toy instrument beloved by Hawaiians and music hall maniacs with bad teeth--you can wake this restless monster up gently with a quaint strum, then by the second verse start slamming the strings with more abandon, until by the end of the song you're scraping and scratching the barest and brashest notes out of the instrument like a demented Dashboard Confessional car crash. This doesn't take into account the awesome keyboard riff, which I'm now trying to work out on harmonica for a truly disturbing one-man-band rendition. But even without that sort of overkill, it's possible to take this seminal '60s psychedelic rave-up and turn it, using a laughable instrument no bigger than your forearm, into something savagely sparse, stirring and psychotic. That's what punk rock was supposed to be doing when it reduced disco to rubble in the late 1970s by bypassing studio savvy in favor of rootsy strumming and hoarse vocals. Now that punk itself is the

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province of hit-making conglomerates and prefab teen sensations, where can we turn for some gutsy, unadulterated chords that don't remind us of the crap on the radio? I say it's the ukulele, and I'm not alone. A new breed of punks has brought revolution, raw roots and cultural controversy to the uke community. The third annual Ukulele Expo 2003, hosted by the Ukulele Hall of Fame Aug. 8-10 at Rhode Island College in Providence, screened several films that cut to the heart of the debate. Stanley's Gig is a nostalgic tale of a sad little man whose life is redeemed by the enjoyment of the ukulele. The Expo also showed a British comedy starring George Formby, a goofy uke-strumming 1930s British naughty-naïf predecessor of Pee Wee Herman. There was a how-to-play-uke instruction film. And then there was the recent documentary Rock That Uke. It splits the quaint, strum-and-patter realm of the uke wide open by depicting dozens of musicians using the uke punkishly and experimentally, as everything from neo-Dada to electronic innovations to potty-mouthed punk. These forward-thinking, far-out four-string-axe acts--found everywhere from Massachusetts to Kentucky and especially (no surprise) California--include the distortion exercises of Williwaw, the ensemble augmenters Steven Swartz and Alan Drogin of Songs from a Random House, uke modernists Uke Til U Puke and Ukefink, and skewed traditionalists like underground cartoonist Robert Armstrong, a cofounding member of R. Crumb's band The Cheap Suit Serenaders. The ukulele's Hawaiian origins as an ornate small guitar to accompany beautiful island warblings was long ago warped by the American and British desire to use it to play drinking songs. The riot-uke or uke-punk contingent is the next obvious step in a dishonorable but highly entertaining tradition. Adapting rock and punk songs to the ukulele is not so much a deconstruction as it is wanton destruction. Feeling those tough nylon strings sproing and churn under the savage swipes of fingernails, holding on while the hollow reverberations shake that vulnerable little wooden body, hearing the chords bend out of tune and into their own realm of acoustic feedback. ... I got my first ukulele a year ago, thinking I could entertain my newborn daughter with stuff like "Turkey in the Straw" and "Polly Wolly Doodle." But in the back of my mind I hoped I'd be able to stretch the uke's capabilities enough to hack out a recognizable version of Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side," which has become little Mabel's favorite lullabye. I'd never played a stringed instrument and can't even hold a guitar properly. But I was supremely confident that I could master the ukulele. For one thing, the Guinness Book of World Records has deemed it the easiest musical instrument to learn. For another, everybody who plays it makes it look easy. There's never any guitar-hero wincing or straining or gritting teeth when playing a ukulele. In fact, the better you play it, the more wrong it sounds. Ukulele virtuosi have learned to keep it simple; get too intense and you really ought to move onto another instrument. Musically, it's a cheap fix--a great ukulele will cost you the same as a bad guitar. Mine is a low-end model good enough to hold its tunings but trashy enough to toss around without anxiety; it cost around 50 bucks. Top-of-the-line ukeleles from guitar experts like Martin or Taylor can run to $200, as can newfangled uke-like contraptions like the acoustically and aesthetically superior flat-bottomed "Fluke." I got a few good instruction books dirt-cheap from a music store that was going out of business and mastered a few dozen chords in a matter of weeks, practicing an average of five minutes a day between baby feedings and diaper-changings. The punk test is not whether you can play Ramones songs on a uke. Of course you can, the more ludicrous ("Rock & Roll High School," "The KKK Took My Baby Away") the better. The real test is whether you can use the uke to strip away all the pretension and legit musicality from a song.

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The uke's virtues are not lost on superstar guitarists. Last week at the Shubert theater in New Haven, Todd Rundgren, one of the most pretentious and instrumentally overloaded performers of our time, suddenly whipped out a ukulele to play the most basic and tribal tune he's ever composed, "Bang the Drum All Day." Quiet Beatle George Harrison's love of the ukulele was well-known, but didn't express itself publicly until a few years before his death. He's got one on hand for his Anthology interviews, and there are no less than two uke tunes on his final CD, Brainwashed, including a respectful rendition of the pop standard "The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea." Other unlikely ukulele sightings include the jester Feste plunking a uke in the Long Wharf Theatre's 2002 production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, and a museum exhibit that same year in Bridgeport devoted to uke lore, from Hawaii to '50s TV celeb Arthur Godfrey and beyond. Filtered through the four twangy strings of a ukulele, every song becomes a brittle shell of its former self, knocked down to its barest punk essentials. There's a perversity to this, but also a divine purity. Folk, bluegrass and blues influences come to the forefront. So does a chirpy, silly glee. The first song I learned from the gleefully bizarre songbook Jumpin' Jim's '60s Uke-In, one of many useful uke guides prepared by the hyper-enthused uke evangelist Jim Beloff, was Otis Redding's "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay." Beloff's arrangement of this deeply moving soul classic transforms the song into a travesty of its former self. And how could it not? You're playing a doom-laden, worldweary Motown-tinged lament on a jolly little instrument best suited to pep songs like "The Varsity Rag." It's impossible not to add cheery "do-be-do-be-do"s to "Dock of the Bay" when you're playing it on ukulele. After that whiff of revolutionary devil-may-care, nothing could stop me. I converted ABBA's "Waterloo" to a simple folk ditty. I took Peter Frampton's "Baby I Love Your Way" way out of context. I raided guitar-tab Web sites for the chords to the most unlikely uke fodder I could think of: Alice Cooper's "The Ballad of Dwight Frye," bringing out the music-hall hullabaloo that underscores much of the hellish Cooper canon; Mott the Hoople's "All the Young Dudes" (adding a trad-uke flourish to the phrase "boogaloo dudes" before hitting the power-chord chorus full-force); The Archies' "Sugar, Sugar," alternating stark single-note twangs and rude bubblegum-grunge licks. Meanwhile, I scoured the public library for the sheet music for the wilder old-school uke standards, such as Jimmy Durante's "InkaDinka-Doo" and Paul Whiteman's "Collegiate." The off-key angst of punk-pop romantics The Mr. T Experience loses little in the translation to ukulele. The studio pomposity of The The or Weezer evaporates handily when reduced to four strings and squeaky, barely-held-together chord structures. Stripped of its echoing drums and rampaging vocals, Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life" reveals its hidden kinship with "I'm Henry VIII I Am." Yet, unless you define the genre only by volume and fury, the punk element remains. Though I'm strictly a closet uke player, it didn't take long for me to find kindred uke-punk spirits on the Internet. Madison, Wisc.'s Ukulele Freedom Front resolves that "six string domination of the music industry must end!" Their Web site, http://www.riotukes.org/, provides a forum for closet ukulele experimentalists. You can also get chord charts for "I Will Survive" and "These Boots Are Made for Walking." From the more demure but nonetheless nervy http://www.alligatorboogaloo.com/ you can snag uke arrangements of Groucho's "Lydia the Tattooed Lady," Louis Prima's Jungle Book rave-up "I Wanna Be Like You," the Popeye theme song, Nick Lowe's "Cruel to Be Kind," Leonard Cohen's "Bird on a Wire" and The Flaming Lips' "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots," alongside grand old tunes from George M. Cohan and "Tiptoe Through the Tulips." Oh, yes, that Tiny Tim hit of the '60s remains the signature ukulele standard. Except that it's a bitch to learn--Jim Beloff's arrangement involves seven tricky chords (Fm6, anyone?) in its first stanza alone. When most people grab a uke, they're more likely to show off with the riff from "Smoke on the Water" than a genuinely difficult piece like "Tulips." I'm avoiding it myself, though I have painstakingly been practicing "When You Wish Upon a Star" in honor of the greatest American ukulele god who ever lived, the pudgy, plucky and ill-fated Cliff Edwards, aka Ukulele Ike.

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More than any single performer, Edwards gave the ukulele its racy, rumpled, raffish public image back in the 1920s and '30s. With his trusty uke, his fluttering falsetto and an uncomfortably leery expression, he world-premiered George Gershwin songs such as "Fascinatin' Rhythm" in Broadway revues. In films, he was the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Disney's Pinocchio, not to mention one of Dumbo's black crows and a jaded reporter in The Front Page. Living fast, dying broke in a Hollywood gutter, Cliff Edwards was the Kurt Cobain of the ukulele. At the peak of its popularity--during the Jazz Age of the 1920s, when a uke was tucked into the pocket of every frat boy's raccoon coat--a lot of racy, blue and downright pornographic tunes got strummed and razzed. Ukulele Ike trucked in recordings like "I'm a Bear in Your Boudoir Baby" and "Who's Taking Care of the Caretaker's Daughter While the Caretaker Isn't Taking Care?" Groucho Marx serenades "the college widow" with a ukulele during a canoe ride in Horsefeathers: "Everyone says 'I love you,'" he warbles, "but just what they said it for I never knew." The history of the ukulele is the history of off-color, off-kilter, offensive and just-plain-off folk-pop, acoustic-rock frettish and fetishistic frolics. Punking it up and letting those tingly, clanging little chords flip into the air like a gob of Sex Pistols spit is in the ukulele's cellular make-up. As annoying and grating as it is effortlessly entertaining, the unassuming underdog uke spells salvation for anyone who still wants to hear the sound of a world falling apart.

© 2003 New Haven Advocate

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