Harry Shearer and Judith Owen Talk New Orleans, the Knights of Soft Rock and the Grateful Dead
Comedian Harry Shearer--best known as Spinal Tap bassist Derek Smalls and as the voice of Mr. Burns, Ned Flanders and countless other characters on The Simpsons--and his wife Judith Owen, a singer-songwriter, have hosted their Holiday Song Along benefit concerts in venues across the country for almost a decade. Over the years, they have raised thousands of dollars for the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic, but they’ve also had some fun along the way. Shearer and Owen have been known to play a non-traditional holiday song or two during their performances, which always include appearances by a slew of special guests (Weird Al, Catherine O’Hara, Christopher Guest, Jane Lynch and more will be at this year’s L.A. event). It’s as good a way as any to both celebrate and mock the holiday experience.
Relix staffer and New Orleans native Sam D’Arcangelo caught up with Shearer and Owen last week when they dropped by our office to play a few tunes. Owen had some things to say about her forthcoming album, which features legendary session musicians Russ Kunkel, Lee Sklar and Waddy Wachtel [dubbed "The Knights of Soft Rock" in a Rolling Stone piece], while Shearer told a few stories about his time hanging out with the Grateful Dead and Neal Cassady in the late 60s. The two also shared some thoughts on New Orleans (where they are part-time residents) and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Your holiday show is a benefit for musicians down in Louisiana, for the New Orleans Musicians Clinic. What inspired you to start this project?
Harry: The Musicians Clinic in New Orleans has been going since a couple years before the flood, because musicians anywhere don’t have insurance. But in New Orleans, especially, since they’re all self employed, they’re gigging to make money. They would have these horrible health problems, and as we all know now a lot of musicians have hearing problems from you know what. So this became a full line service for musicians with any kind of health problem. To see real doctors, really fine doctors and get first quality health care.And after the flood, why it just got worse cause a couple of the hospitals closed.
Judith: And there were a lot of people who were dealing with depression, and illnesses that were related directly to the mold. There were a lot of health challenges. And the first time we actually did this in public and raised money, the reason we did it was because that was the year of Katrina and so we thought, “Well, now we can actually do what we’d been doing at home.” It was a private thing first, and then we were asked to do it at Walt Disney Concert Hall down in LA. And we thought, “Well, there’s no better reason to do it than to actually raise money for this organization and for this city that needs it so badly.” That really was the start of it and we’ve been doing this ever since. This year we’re also raising money for the International Red Cross for the typhoon relief in the Philippines. They have that in common.
Harry: But you know since we live in New Orleans, we know so many musicians. We know them, we see the work that they do, and what good the Musicians Clinic is doing down there.And music is such a huge part of New Orleans.It’s part of the culture of the city, part of the meaning of the city, so if you keep the musicians alive, you keep the city and the musical culture of the city alive.
Judith: As a Brit anyway, I think New Orleans is a national treasure; it’s an American treasure. I’m not sure everybody realizes that, but for anybody outside of America, that place was the birthplace of jazz and all music as we know it today. I would say that truly makes it a heritage site alone for that reason. So that’s why we’re so adamant about helping the city that we love. That’s a big part of it.You know Harry had this film out that he made.
The Big Uneasy.
Judith: Yeah, The Big Uneasy.
Do you have anything to say about the film? I know it says a lot about how the Army Corps of Engineers was really more responsible for what happened than any “natural disaster.”
Harry: Well, you know what’s in that movie is nothing that I say but it’s the people who did the work for months and months and months from two major universities; a team from LSU and a team from the University of California Berkeley. It all started when one of them was down two or three days after the flood started and the Army Corps of Engineers at the time was saying, “Well, these flood walls are overtopped, the storm surge was so high.” Well water has a nasty habit of leaving a mark at its highest point and he walked over to one of these floodwalls and the water hadn’t reached even half way to the top of these collapsed floodwalls. They could not have been collapsed by overtopping because the water never got near the top. And that’s part of the process of trying to find out what went wrong. Both studies came out with remarkably similar conclusions: That it was 40 years, more than 40 years of mistakes, misjudgments and miscalculations by the Army Corps of Engineers in building what was supposed to be a hurricane protection system for New Orleans. It was, in the words of one of the co-authors of the Berkeley study, the greatest man-made engineering catastrophe since Chernobyl. And so I made the movie to give them a platform to deliver that unpleasant news to--New Orleans knew it--but to the American public which had paid for the system that failed so disastrously. And there’s also a whistleblower in it from inside the Army Corps of Engineers who talks about the new improved system.Supposedly, it’s 14 billion dollars that we’ve just paid, it has serious problems, serious defects at the heart of it as well. And so I made this film and it was very frustrating to me that the national media--which had covered the flooding in the first place and kept saying “Big hurricane! City below sea level!” neither of which were particularly relevant--really still hasn’t shared that with the American public. Most people still think, “Big humungous hurricane! City below sea level! Why are people still living there? Why don’t they move someplace safe?”
I really do hate that more than anything.
Harry: Oh man! I was writing every day in the Huffington Post at that point and this supposedly liberal website was getting all this hate mail for New Orleans. You know, “Why don’t you people move?These lazy people..blah blah. “All that stuff.
Judith: Did anybody tell people in Jersey Shore, did anybody say that?
Harry: Move inland! Move to Ohio!
Judith: It’s ridiculous. It’s a thing of great cruelty and I think it just shows again the lack of appreciation for that place.
Harry: It also shows how the sense of community and one-ness in this country has been blown apart by bad times and bad politics, you know. We’re not all in this together, we’ve learned that. In New Orleans were saying, “Please, sell us back to the French.”
Or give us to the Dutch, maybe.
Harry: Yeah, or the Dutch. No shit
Judith: (laughing) Yeah, the Dutch know how to do this.