Or Bust: Satirist Roy Zimmerman performs Dec. 1.
By Bruce Robinson
Satirical songwriter Roy Zimmerman is home for the holidays, even the pantheistic one he invented last year: Christma-Hanu-Rama-Ka-Dona-Kwanzaa.
Zimmerman doesn’t mince words–but he does twist, subdivide, elongate and compound them, crafting lyrics that combine a pointed personal point of view with scrupulously executed rhyme schemes.
“That’s the fun of it,” the San Anselmo resident explains cheerfully. “It’s like working a puzzle. You come up with the words that are gonna resonate with that song the best, and then find good rhymes for them.”
Case in point, this midsong verse from “Creation Science 101,” sung from the instructor’s perspective: “If you make Genesis your text / You’ll laugh at Darwin and what he sees / To be the origin of species / Because he’s just plain oversexed.”
Although he’s hardly a household name (yet), Zimmerman has been honing his craft for quite a while. “I’ve been writing these satirical songs for 20 years or so–long enough to know better,” he laughs. “I can look back to junior high and remember writing songs about Mrs. Hemple’s wig blowing off. That’s just the way I’m built; I turn that into a song.”
Most recently, Zimmerman has turned a batch of his songs–many taken from his most recent self-released CD, Faulty Intelligence–and turned them into a one-man musical show with the same title. He brings it to Mill Valley’s 142 Throckmorton Theatre for one night on Dec. 1.
At least one of the featured songs dates back to Zimmerman’s earlier musical endeavor, a 1990s faux folk quartet called the Foremen. “It started as an idea to do an homage to the Limelighters and the Kingston Trio and the Chad Mitchell Trio–those groups which I love–and which themselves were quite socially conscious, too,” Zimmerman recalls. “At first it was just a stylistic parody, but it wasn’t too long before it drifted into politics. During the first Gulf War, someone asked us to sing at an antiwar rally, and I hadn’t even formed an opinion about that war, so I went away and I wrote a song. By the time I finished, I had a song and an opinion.”
That song, “Saddam Shame,” appears in an updated version on Faulty Intelligence, which also includes scathing takes on neocon war-mongering (“Chickenhawk”), gay marriage (“Defenders of Marriage”) and faith-based sex education (“Abstain with Me”). In “Intelligent Design,” Zimmerman’s outrage is almost palpable: “When we said No Child Left Behind / Baghdad was what we had in mind / So we devised a standard test / To tell the brightest and the whitest / From the rest / We’re cutting luxuries like teachers, books and tutors / To make things easier for disadvantaged, underprivileged military recruiters.”
“Why shouldn’t I be angry?” he asks. “America’s been hijacked, and there’s a great deal of not just anger, but angst and worry about the future that goes along with that.”
Zimmerman has the rare endorsement of the previous generation’s preeminent musical satirist, Tom Lehrer, who has publicly congratulated him for “reintroducing literacy to comedy songs. And,” Leher added, “the rhymes actually rhyme, they don’t just ‘ryhne.'”
That plug, an artifact of the Foremen’s tenure on Leher’s former record label, was the beginning of an enduring friendship. “I’ve maintained contact with him over the years, and every six months or so we have a good conversation,” Zimmerman says. “He really listens to the new material and critiques it quite in-depth.”
But Zimmerman’s pointed parodies are musical, too. Faulty Intelligence includes a county ballad, a trad-jazz dirge (“When the Saints Go Marching into New Orleans”), a mariachi-style commentary on immigration (“Hello, NSA”) and a spy-movie soundtrack theme.
“I like to write original tunes, but often they’re evocative of a style, and the idea is that the music and the lyrics tell the same story, or tell the same joke,” Zimmerman says. And the music usually comes first.
“In most songs, the music comes so quickly I can’t stop it,” he adds. “Then working out the lyrics is really like working out a crossword puzzle to see how things all mesh.”
One final example from a tender ballad: “My conservative girlfriend / Got a tiny little heart full of passion / My conservative girlfriend / Every weekend we go wilderness trashin’ . . .”
Roy Zimmerman performs ‘Faulty Intelligence’ on Friday, Dec. 1, at the 142 Throckmorton Theatre. 142 Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley. 8pm. $20. 415.383.9600.