The Tubes’ satire rock still feels special
Viper Alley, 275 Parkway Drive, Lincolnshire
8:30 p.m. Oct. 26
$25 to $60 (or $500 for up to eight people in a premium booth).
(847) 499-5000 or visit www.viper-alley.com
Updated: October 17, 2012 3:17PM
The often-scandalous satire-rock band The Tubes (whose wildly theatrical live shows were infamous for vivid depictions of kinky sex, half-naked dancing girls and grand guignol violence) were always ahead of their time. They made fun of glam rock when it was still breaking news in the early ’70s and they had punk attitudes years before punk-rock — including an anti-drug stance captured in their 1975 single “White Punks on Dope.” So it’s all the more impressive that they are still in the game 40 years later.
This year the group has put together a “La Dolce Tubes” show (inspired by Fellini’s 1960s film “La Dolce Vita,” a band favorite), featuring five longtime members of The Tubes (Front man Fee Waybill, guitarist Roger Steen, drummer Prairie Prince, bass player Rick Anderson and pianist David Medd) dressed Marcello Mastroianni-style in sharkskin suits, porkpie hats and skinny ties. The tour includes an Oct. 26 appearance at Viper Alley in Lincolnshire.
Pioneer caught up with Waybill between shows for a quick chat about wretched rock ‘n’ roll excess, pig guts and contagious joy.
PIONEER: To what extent has Tubes material over the years been intended to be humorous and satiric?
WAYBILL: That was our purpose, from the beginning: to be satirists. We loved those wise-guy satirist comedians from the old days, like Mort Sahl and George Carlin. So, from the very beginning, that was our deal: to make a concerted effort to hold up the crazy stuff in our culture and rub it in people’s faces. Whatever the subject was, we always wanted to push it to a ridiculous extreme and cram it down people’s throats, so maybe they’d think about it.
PIONEER: How did you come by Fee as a nickname?
WAYBILL: We all used to live together in this house in San Francisco, years before we ever got a record deal. And somebody had a National Geographic magazine on the coffee table. And there was a picture of the King of Fiji on the cover. And this guy who was the bass player at the time, who ended up getting kicked out of the band because he smoked hash all day long, saw that picture in a drug-induced stupor and said to me: “Wow, you look just like the King of Fiji.” Now, the King of Fiji was the black guy with a huge afro, so I said “Are you kidding me? Dude, you’re smoking too much hash.” But the name stuck and everybody started calling me Fiji.
At the time, I wasn’t using my real last name either, so they used to call me “Feej Cranston.” Then we finally got a record deal and I became a background singer and I had to choose a name for the album. They said, “You’re gonna put Feej Cranston down as your name?” And I realized my parents would kill me, so I went with Fee Waybill. They were already upset that I didn’t follow up on my anthropology major.
PIONEER: Living the rock star life in the ‘70s and ‘80s, did you ever get caught up in the type of wretched excess you used to satirize?
WAYBILL: No, not really. I was never much into drugs. I used to smoke pot a bit, but that was my only vice. I didn’t drink a lot or do coke like everyone else back then. I tried to be professional. There really wasn’t much choice because I had such a workload each show. Singing most of the songs, costume changes, swinging dancers around, throwing Wonder Bread into the audience. . . .
That’s paid off because I’m 62 and I’m still doing this. We’re still doing a 2-½ hour show and I’m still wearing the big platform shoes when I do Quay Lewd (a thoroughly intoxicated and degenerate glam-rocker, ed). There are eight or nine costume changes in this show for the characters I do, so I have to stay in shape.
PIONEER: The Tubes were always known for wild stage shows. Are you still doing Rock Theater these days?
WAYBILL: Well, that’s mostly me. The band doesn’t really get into that. It’s not the dog and pony show it was back in the ‘80s, with 50 people on the road and dancers and the whole freak show. That wouldn’t work when you’re playing clubs.
PIONEER: There was a story going around in the ‘70s about the band shoveling large piles of fake Quaaludes in the audience when you were performing “White Punks on Dope.”
WAYBILL: That never happened. We did a show once, opening for Led Zeppelin and I had a big bag of what I told the audience was Quaaludes, but was actually mints. And I threw it into the audience, along with some flour, which I said was cocaine.
We did do stuff with pig guts. . . We used to throw some into the audience when we were doing “Rock ‘n’ Roll Hospital” and the doctor would use a chainsaw to perform surgery on a pregnant woman. But we’re not doing that stuff now. People really didn’t appreciate pig guts being thrown on them. It wasn’t a crowd-pleaser. (Laughs)
We used to get in trouble all the time for that kind of stuff. We used to have topless dancers, for instance, and that turned out to be something law enforcement officers in various states weren’t fond of.
PIONEER: Who’s in the audience these days? Old fans, mainly? Or a mix of old and new?
WAYBILL: It’s a mix, I’d say. A lot of the fans have grown up with us over the years, but a lot of their kids also come to the show, because they were brought up listening to Tubes songs. And their parents actually expected them to grow up normal? So we see a lot of them out there, while Dad’s rocking out to “White Punks on Dope.”
PIONEER: Do you ever think about the ‘60s/’70s belief that rock ‘n’ roll ended when you turn 30—at which point you either die or turn into your parents?
WAYBILL: Right. (Laughs.) Well, the baby boomers pretty much shot that myth down. It’s a little strange to see that everyone who survived is still out there. Everybody! Not too long away we played with Jethro Tull. It was a big German festival headlined by Jethro Tull with The Tubes as a supporting act. Go figure. But they were unbelievable, man. They were so great. Ian Anderson was so good and so fit and he played his butt off. It was amazing.
We’ve played with Alice Cooper and Uriah Heep (they weren’t so amazing). All of these people I’ve known for years and years, they’re still out there because people still want to see them. And the same goes for us. We’re bigger in Europe than here, actually, especially in England. They love sarcasm, especially when it’s Americans making fun of themselves. We sell out big shows there—but we only go there every couple of years, so maybe that has something to do with it.
PIONEER: What’s the play list like these days?
WAYBILL: We do stuff from every album. We do the whole range of stuff, naturally including the hits that people want to see, like “White Punks” and “What do You Want from Life?” and “She’s a Beauty” and “Talk to You Later.” We try to do all that stuff along with new stuff that’s thematic. Like, this tour, which has an Italian theme, we’re doing a duet between Pavarotti and James Brown singing “This is a Man’s World”—which actually happened, by the way, during a benefit concert Pavarotti put on to help fight the Ebola virus. (Search for Pavarotti and James Brown on YouTube, ed.) James Brown starts it, James Brown style, then Pavarotti does it, operatically, in Italian. I saw that online and I just couldn’t believe my eyes. I do both parts in the show, with our own Tube-esque arrangement of the tune.
PIONEER: What was the band’s biggest hit?
WAYBILL: Our biggest album was “Outside Inside” in 1983. “She’s a Beauty” from that record was probably our biggest single in this country. Although “Talk to You Later” went to number one on the rock charts in something like 28 countries. That’s actually the song we’ve used as the closer for every show for the last 25 years.
PIONEER: Is it sometimes hard to get jazzed up performing the same material for so many years?
WAYBILL: Not really, because the people enjoy it so much. There’s that transference of energy from the audience—that joy you can see in their faces when we go into “She’s a Beauty” or “White Punks on Dope” or when they see Quay Lewd come out with the big platform shoes. You can see their faces light up—and that’s contagious, you know? Especially since we don’t really do enough shows for it to become a grind. Doing only 35 or so shows a year, every show still feels special.
These days, getting together as The Tubes is kind of a hobby. It’s not like we’re making enough money to make a living at this, playing clubs. Everybody has something else going. I manage a million square feet of commercial property, so that keeps me pretty busy. I take care of four gigantic commercial office buildings. Which is kind of fun because it’s at the total opposite end of the spectrum, carer-wise. Especially since most of our buildings are occupied by government agencies with Department of Defense computer servers—so I’ve got a government security clearance. I’ve also got a solo album I’m doing, Roger has a solo album he’s just completed and Prairie plays drums for everybody on the face of the earth. We’re all busy with other stuff, so when we do a Tubes show, it always feels like fun. So, we don’t get burned out. It never feels like a chore.