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'Conchords': Music, Comedy, Clueless Kiwis

Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, aka the folk-parody band Flight of the Conchords, hail from New Zealand. They were named best alternative-comedy act at the 2005 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival. Now they're the stars of an acclaimed HBO series called, yes, Flight of the Conchords — which is, yes, about two transplanted New Zealanders living in New York City's Lower East Side. The first season is out now on DVD. Clement and McKenzie join Fresh Air for a conversation and a few songs. This interview first aired on June 14, 2007

14:58

Other segments from the episode on December 31, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 31, 2007: Interview with Bret McKenzie and Jemain Clement; Interview with Nellie McKay; Interview with Danny Amis, Eddie Angel, and Big Sandy.

Transcript

DATE December 31, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, stars of the new
HBO comedy series "Flight of the Conchords," perform satirical
songs and talk about their experiences on the show
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We're ending the year with three of our most entertaining performances from
2007. Being in a band is supposed to make you charismatic and attractive, but
it didn't help the two characters in the HBO comedy series "Flight of the
Conchords," which debuted this year. Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement star
as two losers in a rock duo. They have no gigs, few friends and just one fan.
The funniest part of the series is the original songs McKenzie and Clement
sing and their imaginary rock videos. McKenzie and Clement started performing
together in New Zealand, where they're from. In the series, the characters
have just moved from New Zealand to downtown Manhattan. This FRESH AIR
performance was recorded in June.

Each of the songs that you do kind of reflect a type of song, and this one is
called "What Is Wrong with the World Today?"

Mr. BRET McKENZIE: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: And to me, it's one of those real like '70s, what's--you know, "What's
Goin' On?" type of songs.

Mr. JEMAINE CLEMENT: Yeah, Marvin Gaye.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah.

Mr. CLEMENT: It was sort of a--this one--like it was a mixture of Marvin
Gaye and I guess the Black-Eyed Peas song "Where is the Love?"

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CLEMENT: There's something kind of funny in that.

(Soundbite of "What Is Wrong with the World Today?")

Mr. CLEMENT: (Singing) There's children on the streets using guns and knives
Taking drugs and each others' lives
Killing each other with knives and forks
And calling each other names like "dork"

Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing) There's people on the street getting diseases from
monkeys
That's what I said, they're getting diseases from monkeys
Now there's junkies with monkey disease
Who's touching these monkey's bellies
Leave this poor, sick monkeys alone
They got problems enough as it is

Mr. CLEMENT: (Singing) A man's lying the street
Some punk has chopped off his head
I'm the only one who stops
To see if he's dead

Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing) Is he dead?

Mr. CLEMENT: (Singing) Ooh, it turns out he's dead
And that's why I'm singing why,

Mr. CLEMENT and Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing in unison) What is wrong with the world
today?

Mr. McKENZIE: (Spoken) What's wrong with the world today?
Ya-da-dee-dee-doo today

Mr. CLEMENT and Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing in unison) Why-hi-hi--what is wrong
with the world today?

Mr. McKENZIE: (Spoken) Yeah, think about it
Think, think about it

Mr. CLEMENT: (Singing) Good cop's been framed
And put into a can
And all the money that we're makin'
Is going to the man

Mr. McKENZIE: (Spoken) What man?
Who's the man?
When's a man a man?
What makes a man?
Am I a man?
Is Bret the man? Yes
Technically he is

Mr. CLEMENT: (Singing) They're turning kids into slaves
Just to make cheaper sneakers
What's the real cost? `Cause the sneakers don't seem that much cheaper

Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing) Oh, why're we paying so much for sneakers when you got
them made by little slave kids?
What're your overheads?

Mr. CLEMENT: (Singing) At the end of your life,
You're lucky if you die
Sometimes I wonder why we even try
I saw a man lying on the street half-dead
With knives and forks sticking out of his leg
He said, `Ow-ow-ow, ow, ow, ow, ow, ow
Can somebody get the knives and forks out of my leg please?'

Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing) Can somebody please remove these
Cutleries from my knees

Mr. CLEMENT: (Singing) And then we broke it down

Mr. CLEMENT and Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing in unison) This is where we break it
down
Ooh--this is where we break it down
Ow--this is where we break it down

Mr. CLEMENT: (Singing) I could do a capella jams

Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing) Mm-hmm, a capella jam, bringing it to you

Mr. CLEMENT: (Singing) Yeah, breakin' it right down
Yeah, oh, yeah,
Ooh, ooh

Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing) And then we bring it back, why, why

Mr. CLEMENT: (Singing) Ooh!

Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing) Whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa

Mr. CLEMENT: (Singing) Whoo! Jammin' out in the studio.

Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing) Mm-hmm-hmm.

Mr. CLEMENT: (Singing) Jammin'

Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing) Jammin' out

Mr. CLEMENT: (Singing) Jammin'
Fading out

Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing) Fading out, fading out

Mr. CLEMENT: (Singing) Just fading out

Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing) Here's to you

Mr. CLEMENT: (Singing) Just fading out
Fading out

Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing) Fading
Ooh, yeah-ah-hah

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement.

Did you ever like perform in a straight band that wasn't comedy?

Mr. McKENZIE: I have.

Mr. CLEMENT: I've never, but Bret's performed in several bands.

Mr. McKENZIE: Yeah.

Mr. CLEMENT: I've never been in what I'd call a real band. This is...

GROSS: Why? I mean, do you lack confidence in yourself as a...

Mr. CLEMENT: Yes.

GROSS: ....as a non-ironic performer?

Mr. CLEMENT: As a person.

GROSS: As a human being in general?

Mr. CLEMENT: No, it's just that, when we started this, I definitely wouldn't
have been able to really keep up.

Mr. McKENZIE: Yeah, we've got a lot better than when we started. We both,
we could barely play guitar when we started. We started off like we had--I
think we knew three or four chords, and then now we know probably 11 chords,
so.

GROSS: Don't overdo it.

Mr. McKENZIE: Yeah. Between us...

Mr. CLEMENT: We learn a new chord...

Mr. McKENZIE: Each year.

Mr. CLEMENT: Each year. Each year at Christmas, we give each other a new
chord.

Mr. McKENZIE: Yeah, I say I know five, and Bret says he knows six. So
that's 11.

GROSS: Can I ask you to do another song that you do in the TV show?

Mr. McKENZIE: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CLEMENT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And this one's called "I'm Not Crying," and why don't you describe the
context that you sing it in in the HBO series?

Mr. CLEMENT: In the show, my character, Jemaine, based loosely on myself,
has just been dumped by a woman, and he's...

Mr. McKENZIE: By the most beautiful girl in the room.

Mr. CLEMENT: Yes, actually.

Mr. McKENZIE: Yeah, now she--later in the episode she dumps Jemaine.

Mr. CLEMENT: Now she's breaking my heart, and I'm...

Mr. McKENZIE: Yeah.

Mr. CLEMENT: I'm in denial about my emotions.

(Soundbite of "I'm Not Crying")

Mr. CLEMENT: (Spoken) So you're leaving
You say you have to go
Well, if you have to go, then I suppose you have to go
That's what it means to have to go, doesn't it?
It means you have to go

(Singing) But if you're trying to break my heart
Your plan is flawed from the start

(Spoken) You can't break my heart, it's liquid
It melted when I met you

And as you walk down the path that leads from our door,
Don't turn around to see me once more
Don't turn around to see if I'm crying
I'm not crying, not crying, not crying

Mr. CLEMENT and Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing in unison) Not crying

Mr. CLEMENT: (Singing) It's just been...

Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing) ...raining
On my face

And if you think you see some tear tracks down my cheeks,
Then please, please don't tell my mates
I'm not crying
No, no, no, I'm--I'm not crying
Oh, well, well, if I am crying, it's not because of you
It's because I am thinking of a friend of mine you don't know
Who is dying
Yes, that's right, dying

Mr. CLEMENT and Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing in unison) These aren't tears of
sadness because you're leaving me
I've just been cutting onions
I'm just baking a lasagne
For one

Mr. CLEMENT: (Singing) I'm not crying, no! No!

Mr. CLEMENT and Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing in unison) There's just a little bit of
dust in my eyes
It's from the...(unintelligible)...that you made when you said your goodbye
I'm not weeping because you won't be here to hold my hand
For your information, there's an inflammation in my tear gland
I'm not upset because you left me this way
My eyes are just a little sweaty today
I've been looking around and out searching for you
They've been looking for you, even though I told them not to

Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing) These aren't tears of sadness because you're leaving me,
They're tears of joy, I'm just laughing

Mr. CLEMENT: (Singing) Oh, oh, oh, ah!

Mr. CLEMENT and Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing in unison) I'm sitting at this table
called love
Staring down at the irony of life
How come I face this fork in the road
And yet it cuts like a knife?
Oh, I'm not crying
I'm not crying
No, I'm not cry-I-I-I-yi
Yi-yi-yi-yi-yin, no, I'm--no, I'm, no...

(Soundbite of sniffle)

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's really great. And that's the...

Mr. McKENZIE: Quite emotional.

GROSS: It's very emotional.

Mr. McKENZIE: Quite hard to bring...

Mr. CLEMENT: To come back from that.

Mr. McKENZIE: To bring myself.

Mr. CLEMENT: Yeah, come back to the room.

GROSS: Compose yourselves.

Mr. CLEMENT: Yeah.

GROSS: And that's the Flight of the Conchords, made up of Bret McKenzie and
Jemaine Clement.

You know, I love that kind of Barry White kind of spoken beginning. Who are
the singers you've most tried to sound like over the years, or you've wished
most you could sound like?

Mr. CLEMENT: Recently, I've been loving Daryl Hall's vocals.

Mr. McKENZIE: Oh, yeah.

Mr. CLEMENT: From Hall & Oates. Amazing singer. And--oh!--and I'm
listening to a lot of Ray Charles.

Mr. McKENZIE: And Oates. Don't forget John Oates.

Mr. CLEMENT: And Oates, I'm not so familiar with. I just love the way Daryl
Hall always goes `Mm, mm, mm, mm,' at the end of all his phrases.

Mr. McKENZIE: I see, that's where you picked that up from.

Mr. CLEMENT: That's what, I've been trying to put that into more songs.

GROSS: My guests are Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, the two stars of the
HBO series "Flight of the Conchords." They'll be back after a break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guests are Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie. They co-created and
star in the HBO comedy series "Flight of the Conchords." They play two losers
in a band.

In those fictional personas, like you're both kind of nerdy, really
uncomfortable around women.

Mr. CLEMENT: No, that part's real.

GROSS: That's part real?

Mr. CLEMENT: That part's real.

GROSS: And you're also both incredibly insecure, but at the same time really
self-absorbed and egotistical.

Mr. CLEMENT: It's a fine line to play.

GROSS: These are the characters I'm talking about, not you.

Mr. McKENZIE: Right, oh, right.

Mr. CLEMENT: I see. Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: Let's set up like what a scene is like. Like, in episode one, you're
both at a party and, Jemaine, you see a woman who you find yourself attracted
to, and suddenly you're imagining this kind of rock video that you're both in
in which you're having a hamburger with her and you're talking with her...

Mr. CLEMENT: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and singing about how beautiful she is. Would you do that song for
us?

Mr. McKENZIE: Yeah, yeah, sure.

Mr. CLEMENT: Certainly.

(Soundbite of "Most Beautiful Girl in the Room")

Mr. McKENZIE and Mr. CLEMENT: (Singing in unison) Lookin' 'round the room,
I can tell that you
Are the most beautiful girl
In the room
In the whole wide room, yeah

And when you're on the street,
Depending on the street
I bet you are definitely in the top three
Good lookin' girls on the street
Depending on the street

And when I saw you at my mate's place
I thought, `What is she doing
At my mate's place?
Oh, how did Dave get
A hottie like that
To a party like this?
Good one, Dave!
Ooh, you're a legend, Dave!'

I asked Dave if he's gonna make a move on you
He's not sure--I said, `Dave, do you mind if I do?'
And he says he doesn't mind, but I can tell he kinda minds,
But I'm gonna' do it anyway
I see you standin' all alone by the stereo
I dim the lights down to very low
Here we go

You're so beautiful,
Well, you could be a waitress
Mm, ah, oh
Well, you could be an air hostess in the '60s
You're so beautiful
Well, you could be a part-time model
And then I sealed the deal,
I do my move, I do the robot
Ooh, ah
(Makes robot noises)

Just talking to
Just me and you
And seven other dudes around you on the dance floor
I draw you near, let's get out of here
Let's get in a cab
I'll buy you a Kabam
And I can't believe
That I'm sharing a Kabam with the most beautiful girl I have ever seen
With a Kabam
Ooh

Oh, why don't we leave?
Let's go to my house
And we could feel each other up on my couch
Oh, no! I don't mind taking it slo-oh-ow! No-oh-oh!
Yeah!
Because you're so beautiful
Like a tree
You're so beautiful
Like some beautiful ceramics or something
Ooh, you're so beautiful
Like some of those girls I've been definitely, definitely chatting to in the
chat room
You're so beautiful
Wildslutangel22@yahoo-hoo-hoo
You're so beautiful
I think you could be a part-time model
But you'd probably still have to keep your normal job
Part-time model
Spend a part of your time modeling
And part of your time next to me-ee-hee-eh-hee
Next to me-hee-hee
And the rest of your time doing your normal job
Waitressing

GROSS: That's really great. Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, I want to
thank you both so much. That was really fun. I really appreciate you
performing for us.

Mr. CLEMENT: Thank you...

Mr. McKENZIE: Thanks for having us.

Mr. CLEMENT: ...for inviting us.

Mr. McKENZIE: Cheers.

GROSS: Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement of the HBO series "Flight of the
Conchords." Their FRESH AIR performance was recorded in June.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Nellie McKay sings some of her songs and talks about
her lyrics
TERRY GROSS, host:

We're ending the year with some of our most entertaining performances from
2007.

Nellie McKay is performing tonight at Joe's Pub at the Public Theater in
Manhattan. In the New York Times preview of her concert, Nate Chinen
described McKay as, quote, "sweet as a cream puff and tough as nails, a pretty
good combination for the coming year," unquote. McKay started off wanting to
be a jazz singer, but in her own songs you hear the influence of everything
from vaudeville to hip-hop. Last year, she played Polly Peachum in the
production of "The Threepenny Opera" that also starred Alan Cumming and Cyndi
Lauper. This year McKay released her third album, "Obligatory Villagers." Her
FRESH AIR interview and performance was recorded in November.

Nellie McKay, welcome to FRESH AIR. You've brought your ukelele with you, so
let's start with a song. And how about you open with the song that opens your
new CD, "Mother of Pearl"?

Ms. NELLIE McKAY: Thank you, Terry.

(Soundbite of "Mother of Pearl")

Ms. McKAY: (Singing) Feminists don't have a sense of humor
Tsk, tsk, tsk, tsk
Feminists just want to be alone
Boo, hoo, hoo, hoo
Feminists spread vicious lies and rumor
They have a tumor on their funny bone

They say child molestation isn't funny
(Speaking) Ha, ha, ha, ha
(Singing) Rape and degredation's just a crime
(Speaking) Lighten up, ladies
(Singing) Rampant prostitution, sex for money
(Speaking) What's wrong with that?
(Singing) Can't these chicks do anything but whine?
(Speaking) Dance break

(Singing) Da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da

(Soundbite of McKay imitating tap dancing)

Ms. McKAY: (Singing) Da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da
Doop-de-doop-de-doop! Woohoo!

Da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da

(Speaking) Yeah! Take it off!

(Singing) Da, da, da, da, da, da, da, dum

They say cheap objectification isn't witty
(Speaking) It's hot
(Singing) Equal work and wages worth the fight
(Speaking) Sing us a new one
(Singing) On demand abortion, every city
(Speaking) OK, but no gun control
(Singing) Won't these women ever get a life?

Feminists don't have a sense of humor
(Speaking) Poor Hillary
(Singing) Feminists and vegetarians
(Speaking) Make mine a Big Mac
(Singing) Feminists spread vicious lies and rumor
They're far too sensitive to ever be a ham
That's why these feminists just need to find a man

Da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da

(Speaking) I'm Dennis Kucinich, and I approved this message

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Well, bravo. That was great.

Ms. McKAY: Oh, thank you.

GROSS: That was really, really fun. And that's Nellie McKay playing a song
from her new CD, and the CD is called "Obligatory Villagers."

That song kind of sums up just some of the things I like about you. I mean,
it's really funny and trenchant, and you have a beautiful voice, and you're
singing about a very contemporary set of themes here, but the style of music
that you're playing, I mean, is almost vaudevillian, like tap dancing. So
you're bringing together these different eras, musically and lyrically.

Ms. McKAY: Oh, well, thank you. I think there are nice things about every
era. I wish we could just take the nice things.

GROSS: One of the most quoted lines about you is from Blender, in which you
were described as "indie musical comedy." Do you see yourself as being
somewheres in between music and theater?

Ms. McKAY: I don't really know. You know, I just did a theater thing the
other night, and I was discussing with my mother about how we don't get the
appeal of it. So maybe I'm the wrong person to be representing the theater.
We'd much rather go see a bad movie. But, you know, sure, I certainly like
mixing it up.

GROSS: Well, speaking of movies, you've made a movie called "P.S. I Love
You." And that's also the name of a great song that I know was popular during
World War II. So do you get to sing it in the film?

Ms. McKAY: I gave the song out as a cast present, and when the director said
he wanted to use it in the film, my mother said, `Oh, I bet that means he's
cutting all your scenes.' And that was a big joke. That was very funny. Then
we went to a screening, and he'd cut all my scenes. So I'm glad they're at
least using the music in the movie.

GROSS: So would you do the song for us?

Ms. McKAY: I'd love to.

(Soundbite of "P.S. I Love You")

Ms. McKAY: (Singing) Dear, I thought I'd drop a line
The weather's cool
The folks are fine
I'm in bed each night at 9
P.S. I love you

Yesterday we had some rain
But all in all, I can't complain
Was it dusty on the train?
P.S. I love you

Write to the Browns just as soon as you're able
They came around to call
I burnt a hole in the dining room table

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Nellie McKay recorded in November. We'll hear more of her performance
in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're ending the year with some of our
most entertaining performances from 2007. Let's get back to Nellie McKay's
performance. Her latest CD is called "Obligatory Villagers."

You are now considered indie rock, but you studied jazz singing and it's clear
that you have a great jazz feeling when you sing. But you gave up pursuing
that path as a jazz singer. You left school, I think it was the Manhattan
Institute of Music where you were studying.

Ms. McKAY: Well, some refer to it as the Manhattan Pool of Mucus, but that
does not reflect my feelings on a lot of the teachers that work there. It's
just, you know, the institutions of higher learning themselves are always
suspect.

GROSS: Why did you depart from the path of jazz singing?

Ms. McKAY: Oh, well, you know, I think I tortured the audience at my shows a
fair bit with my warped renditions of popular standards. But actually we were
going to record a standards album, but I've decided it isn't worth the
trouble.

GROSS: Why? I'd listen.

Ms. McKAY: Oh, well, I'm glad, I'm glad. But it's just those standards, you
have to be in a--I don't know. I find it hard to temper, you know, those
beautiful melodies with my essential Larry Davidness.

GROSS: Well, you know, there's something like so sweet about some of the
standards from, say, like the '20s and '30s. And you wrote a song that was on
your first album that's kind of in the manner of those songs about, you know,
getting married, having a little white house at the end of Honeymoon Lane,
that kind of song. But your version of it is all of the things that have
become cliches and for you probably undesirable in some way, or at least that
version of it is undesirable. And the song I'm thinking of--I think I've not
done a very good job of describing it, but the song I'm thinking of is "I
Wanna Get Married." It just seems to me like your take on a certain kind of
standard that you don't feel like you could really sing honestly.

Ms. McKAY: Oh, no--well, I'm sure I will fall again and be able to sing them
honestly again, but at this moment, there's a certain breeziness that preempts
a maudlin rendition.

GROSS: Do you want to do a few bars of "I Wanna Get Married"?

Ms. McKAY: Yes.

(Soundbite of "I Wanna Get Married")

Ms. McKAY: (Singing) I wanna get married
Yes, I need a spouse
I want a nice "Leave It To Beaver"-ish
Golden retriever and a little white house

I wanna get married
I need to cook meals
I wanna pack cute little lunches
For my Brady bunches
Then read Danielle Steele

I wanna escape
This rat race I've created
I'm feelin' enervated
I don't care if I make it
I just want to bake a sugar cake
For you to take to work in the morn
And I'll stay home cleaning the dishes
And keeping your wishes all warm

I wanna get married
That's why I was born

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Nellie McKay. What were you thinking when you wrote this song?
What were you thinking about?

Ms. McKAY: Oh, well, it was lament. You know, I wanted to get married but
I, you know, I realized no matter what you want, it's kind of a fantasy.

GROSS: So my take on it was all wrong, it wasn't your shout out and critique
of standards from the '20s and '30s?

Ms. McKAY: No, no. But, I mean, you can criticize something you strive for,
and you can avoid something you dream about.

GROSS: Now, you were born in London, moved to New York when you were two with
your mother after your parents separated, but you spent your high school years
in the Poconos. And there's a really interesting jazz scene there--Phil Woods
lives there, Bob Dorough, the singer/songwriter and pianist and, you know, a
whole bunch of other musicians. And Bob Dorough's on your new CD. Were
you--as a teenager, did you know the people in that scene from there?

Ms. McKAY: I did. I used to bug them when I was in high school, and now
I've come back to underpay them. So I mean, they're all grateful to have made
my acquaintance, and they're just a bunch of pussycats there. But I'm serious
about underpaying them. I do intend to do better next time.

GROSS: My guest is singer/songwriter and musician Nellie McKay. Her latest
CD is called "Obligatory Villagers." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is songwriter, singer and musician Nellie McKay.

It seems to me you have like a really pretty voice. But in your songs you
usually don't want to be pretty. I mean, you're often saying pretty cutting
things in your lyrics. And I think it's just a really interesting paradox of
who you are as a performer, that there's this like beauty in what you're
capable of doing, which you sometimes intentionally undercut by what you sing
about.

I'm going to ask you to do a few bars of a song called "Manhattan Avenue."
This is also from your first album. And this is an example of what I mean. I
mean, it sounds like really pretty, but if you listen to the lyrics, you know,
it's not so pretty. Can you tell the story behind the song before you play
it?

Ms. McKAY: Yeah. Well, yeah. But, I mean, I had a lovely, you know,
childhood, but you still see a lot of things, you know.

GROSS: And this is a period when you were living in New York City, I think,
in Harlem.

Ms. McKAY: That's right. That's right, in Harlem. And, you know, there was
a lot of beauty there. The older people in the building--well, even they had
some problems. I mean, Lionel--there's a man named Lionel in the song--he did
kind of guard over the building. But he also eventually got evicted for
having too many prostitutes in his apartment. We had some good friends in the
building that we kept in touch with awhile. And not much education, you know,
I mean--and you can see that in the Christmas cards. But that makes them all
the more poignant. Just when it's harder for them to do something and yet
they do a more beautiful job than people who have all the privilege in the
world.

We got a lot of our cats from the alley next door, and the older women,
especially, in our neighborhood would put out food for the cats and for the
pigeons. And yet the, largely the young men, would sic their pit bulls on
them. And my mother once saw a cat's throat torn out in front of her by a pit
bull. And this was a cat we were probably going to adopt. So a lot of mixed
messages.

GROSS: And you mention the pit bulls in this lovely melody.

Ms. McKAY: Yeah.

GROSS: And this is "Manhattan Avenue." Why don't you play it for us?

(Soundbite of "Manhattan Avenue")

Ms. McKAY: (Singing) Send a breeze
A pit bull's yelp
A tender squeeze
A cry for help
Make it now
And make it fast
Such memories
Can never last
I long for the days
Music and mayhem
Mama's a smiling friend in the
Scuzzy hue of the streetlight
Manhattan Avenue

Lionel, please
Watch o'er our door
The children tease
I beg for more
Chipping paint
The ceiling's spent
Aw, ain't it great
Can't make the rent
I long for the days
Kittens are meowling
Junkies are prowling
Deep in the jazzy hue of the streetlight
Manhattan Avenue

How wild it is
What strange a vice
That a mugger and a child should share the same paradise
Oh, but dreams come true
On Manhattan Avenue

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Nellie McKay performing her song "Manhattan Avenue."

You mention a mugger in that last line. Is there a specific mugger that
you're thinking of in that line?

Ms. McKAY: Oh, I am. I am. I want to say hi to my mugger if he's
listening. I'm sorry. I want to say hello. I want to give a shout out
because he only spent about, I think, a year in the joint and then he got out
and he was looking for us. But we were breaking down somewhere in South
Dakota. So he couldn't get us again.

Yeah, he came by and he said, `Give me the bleeping money or I'll bloop the
kid up.' And we just laughed. We thought he was a friend of ours. And then
he kept saying it. And then we figured out, oh, he wasn't a friend of ours.
But then my mother, being as swift and ruthless as she is, she didn't even
toss him her real wallet. She tossed him her dummy wallet. And then--and so
all he got was two bucks and a couple of bad credit cards that had no money on
them anyway. And then he took off sauntering down the street. And my mom was
yelling after him, `Yeah, you better run, you better run!' I don't know if he
did start to run. And then we got him in a line up. But then we were
beginning to think maybe it's time to leave New York.

GROSS: Your mother carried around a dummy wallet for muggers?

Ms. McKAY: Oh, yeah. But I think, for those listening, it's probably gone
up from two dollars now. You should always account for inflation.

GROSS: We opened with the first song from your new CD. Do you want to close
by performing the last song on the CD, "Zombie"?

Ms. McKAY: I'd love to, yes. Thank you.

GROSS: Introduce it for us. Tell us something about it.

Ms. McKAY: Oh. For any zombies that may be listening, this one's for you.

(Soundbite of "Zombie")

Ms. McKAY: (Singing) Should you plan to travel way down South
Woman to woman, I got to tell you 'bout a curse
A curse that rose out of the deep, green swamp
It hollers murder and it makes you jump

And then it says
Do the zombie
A-do the zombie, whoa, yeah
Do the zombie
A-do the zombie, whoa, yeah

When I was younger, just a little girl
Lennon glasses and a ponytail, uh huh
My mama told me, `Honey, pack your trunk
We're going to Mississippi, do the Bayou Bump'

Where they say
Do the zombie, rawr, rawr, rawr,
A-do the zombie, whoa, yeah, rawr, rawr, rawr
Do the zombie, rawr
A-do the zombie, whoa, yeah

One day I set out for a walk
The path soon grew quite dark
I saw my shadow running faster
Hurry, slow mo, coming after me
After me

And it said
Do the zombie
A-do the zombie, whoa, yeah, rawr, rawr
Do the zombie
Do the zombie, whoa, yeah

The sun is shining and you're feeling fine
As you pass the Mason Dixon line, uh huh
The forest echoes and the tree leaves snap
Hey, what's that sound? Spin around
Who dat?

Then they say
Do the zombie
A-do the zombie, whoa, yeah
A-do the zombie
A-do the zombie, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa

Bob Dylan, do the zombie, yeah
(Impersonates Bob Dylan singing unintelligibly)
What do we do there?
What do we feel?
Come on, torture's no big deal

Do the zombie, ch, ch, ch-ka, ch ch
Do the zombie, ch, ch, ch-ka, ch ch
Now I'm, I'm, I'm, I'm a Morrissey zombie
I'm very depressed, but go vegetarian
Go vegetarian, everyone!

Do the zombie, whoa, yeah
I didn't do the--what, how far are, are we
What is the, the--they don't hear them
I don't see them
They just hate us for our freedom
(Soundbite of evil laughter)

Elizabeth Taylor zombie:
`Oh, Montgomery, how come you're so gay?'
Um, wow, must escape the vicious nexus
Wonder what Brecht ate for breakfast

Dinah Shore, see the USA in your Chevrolet
America is the greatest land of all

(Soundbite of blowing a kiss)

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Nellie McKay, thank you so much.

Ms. McKAY: Thank you so much, Terry. It was a real pleasure.

GROSS: Nellie McKay recorded in November.

Coming up, Los Straitjackets and Big Sandy do Spanish language covers of '60s
hits. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Los Straitjackets talk about their album "Rock en
Espanol"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Mr. DANNY AMIS: (Spanish spoken)

GROSS: That stirring FRESH AIR intro was done by Danny Amis, the founder of
the band Los Straitjackets. On their latest CD this American band pays
tribute to Mexican cover recordings or rock 'n' roll hits from the '50s and
'60s. Amis collects these Spanish language covers. In June Amis came to our
studio with Los Straitjackets guitarist Eddie Angel and singer Big Sandy, a
guest performer on their CD "Rock en Espanol." One of the songs they performed
in our studio was the Kinks' "All Day and All of the Night."

(Soundbite of "All Day and All of the Night")

Mr. ROBERT "BIG SANDY" WILLIAMS: (Singing in Spanish)

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's great. But you know it as "All Day and All of the Night." Oh,
that sounded so fantastic. And that was Big Sandy singing, Eddie Angel on
guitar, Danny Amis introducing the song for us. And they're performing today
songs on the new Los Straitjackets album "Rock en Espanol, Volume 1."

How did you get the idea to do these Spanish versions of early rock 'n' roll
songs?

Mr. AMIS: Well, it was quite a popular genre in the early '60s in Mexico.
There were quite a few groups inspired by the arrival of Bill Haley, who was
down there avoiding income tax evasion.

GROSS: Bill Haley was in Mexico?

Mr. EDDIE ANGEL: Yeah.

Mr. AMIS: Yeah. He moved to Mexico City for a while and inspired a whole
scene in Mexico City. And there were all these groups doing American rock 'n'
roll songs in Spanish. And they changed the lyrics, sometimes drastically,
some were faithful translations. But a lot of them were just completely
different. And it's a wonderful--I love these records. And I've been
collecting them for a long time. And we've known for years we needed to do an
entire album of Mexican rock 'n' roll with Big Sandy. And we finally got
around to doing it this past year.

GROSS: A wise choice to have Big Sandy.

Mr. AMIS: Oh, I'd say.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Why, thank you.

GROSS: I love your singing. So you were mentioning that the lyrics for the
Mexican version, the Spanish language version of the songs were sometimes
close, sometimes not so close.

Mr. AMIS: Yeah.

GROSS: What about the lyric we just heard? How close was it to the Kinks
original?

Mr. WILLIAMS: It's fairly faithful to the original.

Mr. AMIS: Yeah.

Mr. WILLIAMS: But, you know, some poetic license there. But...

Mr. AMIS: Yeah, but that's one that's really close.

Mr. WILLIAMS: But there's other ones like, you know...

Mr. AMIS: "El Microscopico Bikini," which was "Dizzy Miss Lizzy." And
they've changed it to a song about a girl on the beach with a tiny bathing
suit.

GROSS: As if it were "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini."

Mr. AMIS: Similar.

GROSS: Which it wasn't.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Exactly. Yeah.

GROSS: How about another song?

Mr. AMIS: All right.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah.

GROSS: You do "Lonely Teardrops" which Jackie Wislon had the big hit of. I'd
love to hear you do it.

Mr. ANGEL: OK. Yeah. Let's try that.

GROSS: And we should ask Danny to introduce it.

Mr. AMIS: OK. (Spanish spoken)

(Soundbite of "Lonely Teardrops")

Mr. WILLIAMS: (Singing in Spanish)

(Singing) Just give me another chance
For romance
Come on tell me
That someday you'll return
Because every day, every day since you've been gone away
You know that my heart does nothing but burn
Cryin'

(Singing in Spanish)

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That was so wonderful.

Mr. ANGEL: Thanks a lot.

GROSS: That's Eddie Angel on guitar, Big Sandy singing, Danny Amis
introducing the song for us. And before we go I've got to ask, how do those
lyrics compare to what Jackie Wilson sang?

Mr. AMIS: That one's pretty close.

Mr. ANGEL: Yeah.

Mr. AMIS: Especially the bridge.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah, that's another one that's fairly faithful to the
original.

Mr. AMIS: Yeah.

GROSS: Well, I can't thank you guys enough for performing for us. It's just
been really, really fun.

Mr. AMIS: Thank you.

Mr. WILLIAMS: It was nice, Terry.

GROSS: Thank you so much.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah, our pleasure.

GROSS: Can I ask you to do one more song for us?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah, sure.

Mr. AMIS: (Spanish spoken)

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WILLIAMS: (Singing in Spanish)

GROSS: The performance we were listening to was recorded in June. We heard
from Danny Amis and Eddie Angel of Los Straitjackets and singer Big Sandy, one
of the guest vocalists on Los Straitjackets' latest CD "Rock en Espanol."

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. All of us at FRESH AIR wish you a happy and healthy
new year.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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