For many years I have been telling my wife that I would like the music of The Shaggs exclusively played at my funeral/memorial. They are one of my all-time favorites. Besides, I don’t think it is possible to be sad when The Shaggs are playing. Actually, it is hard to feel or think of anything else but The Shaggs when their music (?) is on. It is a fairly overwhelming all-encompassing experience. They are so entertainingly hideously bad, your brain has to pretty much dedicate every last synapse to process what your hearing. The Shaggs music is original, primitive, out of tune, lyrically loopy and wackily wonderfully addictive.
Knowing my obscure music tastes my sister-in-law gave me a copy Of The Shaggs album when I was in High School in 1980, right after the record company she worked for re-released the 1969 infamous classic. It was, and still is, the quintessential Dan record. To more politely paraphrase my friend Charlie’s repeated comments about my music tastes, ‘no one else has a better ear for the absurd’. I have no doubt that if someone heard the Shaggs playing while they walked through a cemetery, funeral home or chapel, they would know exactly which direction to head to get to my service.
I have had a lot more cause to ponder funerals lately. It is one of the things that accompanies getting older that no one warns you about. Even back a zillion years ago when schools taught you things you might actually need in the real world, like home economics, personal finance, careers, and civics, there was still no class or lesson that prepared you for dealing with death, mourning and all the things that surround the process. That stuff just kind of gets thrust upon you when you are already at your weakest.
There is no training in life for the handling of funeral arrangements. No one readies you for the anguish and guilt involved with trying to balance what you think your loved one would want, with everyone else’s wants, and still keeping it in a budget that does not bankrupt the entire family. Dying can be a lot more expensive than living. ” OK Mr. Bereaved, if you do not want the EDEN8000 Cadillac of Caskets made of polished pressure-treated solid Mahogany with platinum hardware to complement the angelic hand-quilted velvet lined interior that will cradle your loved one into the blissful after-life, let me show you the DOA200 economy model made of six pieces of warped particle board hammered together by underpaid blind special ed children from a third world country, lined with Motel 6-grade hand towels and cursed with eternal damnation by Satin himself…. now if that’s what you think your loved one would want…”
The story of The Shaggs has been the subject of books, an off-Broadway play, and the movie rights were once held by Tom Cruise but are currently bouncing around Hollywood waiting to be produced. As the incredible story goes, many years ago a palm-reader told Austin Wiggin’s mother that her young son would one-day ‘grow-up to marry a strawberry blond woman, he would have two sons and also raise three daughters that would form a popular music trio’. After the first two predictions came true, an adult Austin became staunchly determined to make the third part of the preminition a reality.
Mr. Wiggin purchased his three teenage daughters Dot, Helen and Betty musical instruments and a few rudimentary music lessons. After the eldest wrote a dozen or so songs, he drove them from their small-town New Hampshire home to Boston where he rented some studio time for an afternoon in a deal that also included having 1000 copies of the album pressed and distributed. Thus, was born The Shaggs’ debut album Philosophy Of The World.
My parents had no such musical mystical mandate with us kids. Instead, they toiled for decades raising us to be individual free-thinkers with questionable music tastes. But now my folks are both getting on in years, with Dad’s 90th birthday coming soon. When my Father’s parents passed, he had to make all the last minute distressing what, where and when final arrangements. That stress caused my parents to prearrange every possible detail surrounding any serious future illness, funeral arrangements and burial preferences that they could. That has not been the case for my wife, who, unfortunately, has had the burden of some of those things recently fall on her shoulders. Her ailing Mother made some loose arrangements but in the real world, the best-made plans rarely go as expected.
It turns out Austin Wiggan had paid his money to a swindler. The con-man disappeared after producing only 100 copies of his daughters’ record and broke all of his promises about advancing their career. Over the next few years the Shaggs played a few free concerts at the local Town Hall and such but eventually, the band broke up and the three girls went on with their lives marrying and raising families.
But like Rocky Horror and The Room, the few circulated copies of the album took on an unintended life of their own. One fell into the hands of eclectic musician Frank Zappa who in a late 1970s interview declared the Shaggs “better than the Beatles”. In 1980, more than a decade after it was recorded, a Boston underground musician found a copy and convinced a small local label to finally release the album. With tongue firmly in cheek, Rolling Stone magazine voted it comeback record of the year. And thus started the Shaggs unexpected rise to famous/infamous cult status.
Through school and a big chunk of my adult life, I made a lot of ‘mix-tapes’ for family and friends. Thanks to Guardians Of The Galaxy, Millennials now understand what those homemade multiple artists themed music tapes were. As geek-a-riffic as it sounds, I took a lot of time and energy on my tapes trying to make them as entertaining and relevant as possible for the recipient. I frequently slipped in a Shaggs song into the assortment of music if it fit the mood or message I was creating.
Yeah, I still kinda do the similar dorky thing on stuff like my Spotify playlists but it’s not the same. Then the other night while offering to help my wife as she was dealing with some ugly early preparations for the inevitable, she asked me to find some clean digital versions of some of the hymns and songs her Mother had liked that would be appropriate for her eventual funeral. I stared blankly at the computer having flashbacks of all those hundreds of tapes I had made, but none of those prepared me for this.
I spent weeks putting together the mix of music for my wedding reception but that paled with the pressure of doing this seemingly simple task. I spent hours on Amazon and I-Tunes not satisfied with any of the hundreds of available versions available of a particular popular hymn. Not enough organ, too much harp, too impersonal a chorus, too country, too pop… I needed solemn and sad but hopeful and uplifting. I did not want to let her family down as I tried to sum up the beauty and greatness of a person’s entire life in a song. I wanted to do this simple little task for my wife but I was useless and made her pick a from a group I found. This mixtape was too important.
I guess that old palm reader was right about the Shaggs as their legacy and legend still grows with each passing year. They made a single follow up album after the first one gained notoriety with Austin himself even taking a shot at the vocals on one song. They had actually learned a few chords over the years and at times the second disc is almost melodic, but it is undoubtedly still the Shaggs. Unfortunately, even the wackiness of the Shaggs is not strong enough to cheer up my wife as she muddles her way through the difficult road in front of her. I might have been useless to help the other night but at least by making it clear that I want a Shaggs only funeral, that is a decision she will never have to make again.
To quote the Shaggs:
We do our best
We try to please
But we’re like the rest
We are never at ease