Dot Wiggin of The Shaggs is Back
How did it happen, and why did it take so long?
The Shaggs made a very strange album in 1969 because their Dad forced them to do it. It was called “Philosophy of the World” and there will never be anything like it ever again.
Their Dad died, the band broke up and life moved on, except for their fans. Not everyone wants to hear one-of-a-kind weirdness when they listen to music, but some do; and for those weirdos The Shaggs is The Shit, even if the listeners can’t wrap their heads around why.
The Shaggs are like the God Mothers of punk rock, because they were so resolutely themselves. It’s not that they just didn’t give a fuck though; it’s that growing up in a small town in New Hampshire in the 1960's they just didn’t know a fuck.
One early fan of The Shaggs toyed with the idea of being their manager, and booking them on The Tonight Show, but he knew that most people would think it was a big joke, and a cruel one at that for the young ladies from Fremont. 40 years ago the world was not ready to take the Shaggs seriously.
Another big fan of “Philosophy of The World,” who wasn’t born until after The Shaggs had quit music for life, did take their work seriously. He set into motion a series of events that brought Dot Wiggin, the singing-songwriting sister at the heart of The Shaggs, back onto the stage.
Dot Wiggin is back and it’s not a joke. Her first ever solo album “Ready! Get! Go!” is out on Alternative Tentacles. She’s singing in front of audiences of her fans (that aren’t from the same town as her) for the first time in her life. The Dot Wiggin Band is going on tour, opening for Neutral Milk Hotel. How did this happen?
The story of Dot Wiggin and The Shaggs starts with her Grandmother making a prediction.
The prophecy, delivered to Austin Wiggin by his own Mother when he was a boy, foretold of a strawberry blonde bride, a pair of sons, and her own untimely death. And in due time, Austin would see it all come true; but that was only the beginning. Holding his upturned palm in her hand, Austin’s Mother peered deeply into the creases and told him to expect daughters as well, girls who would play music together in a band. Austin believed in his mother, and he believed in his girls. One day, they would be famous.
Decades came and went for Austin Wiggin, but when the time was right he pulled his girls out of high school, bought them instruments and insisted they begin to play. Dot, Betty, and Helen Wiggin rehearsed religiously, as their Father had commanded. They worked hard and sacrificed themselves to fulfill their Grandmother’s prophecy, and in time their music would be heard around the world; although their Father would not live to see it.
The 1969 self published album by the unsigned girl group from rural New Hampshire evolved into an enduring underground classic because a handful of influential super-fans kept the album alive. It was called “Philosophy of The World,” and every song on it is the weirdest song you’ll ever hear.
In 1980, a reissue of “Philosophy of The World” arrived at the Sam Goody record store in Paramus, New Jersey. None of the music store geeks who worked there had heard of The Shaggs, but as soon as they got a look at the picture of the Wiggin sisters on the cover they knew that they needed to give it a listen. Mike Fornatale was one of the clerks. “There was no press release with it, we had no idea what it was,” Mike said. “So we slit it open and put it on in the store and drove half of the customers out into the street and the other half ran over and said, ‘What is this, I must have it.’ ”
To hear The Shaggs for the first time is to enter into a world of musical confusion. There are so many elements in the songs that stand apart from all other music, and yet the basic building blocks of pop are all there. The Shaggs is guitars, vocals, and drums; but the guitars are out of tune, the vocals are delivered in thick New Hampshire accents, and the basic drum beats never land where we expect them to land. The lyrics are about lost loves, lost cats, fast cars and the meaning of life.
“The first time you listen to these songs it sounds like just a jumble, like a closet falling down on you,” said Mike, but he and the other weirdos in the record store heard more then mere noise. There was something about the other worldliness of The Shaggs that was like a musical riddle demanding to be solved. And the identity of the artists was so compellingly strange. Who were the girls that made this music and what were they thinking? Was there any more Shaggs music to be heard? Were they still writing songs today? Not only was there no press release with the album, there was no internet to search, so all they had was what they heard.
Little did that young record store clerk realize that 32 years later he’d be crashing at the Wiggin place in New Hampshire after a series of events set in motion by one Shaggs fan who was only 3 years old on the day that Mike first dropped the needle on “Philosophy of The World.”
In 1996 Jesse Krakow flew across the country to New York City for a summer internship to earn college credit. On his first day in the city he met a guy looking for a bass player, and Jesse never looked back. Being a professional musician was the goal of his education, so he dropped out of college and got to work. That first gig was forgettable, but Jesse got better ones. A few years later he was playing bass in Ron Anderson’s band Pak. Pak’s music was fast and loud like metal, but complicated and playful like prog. The relationship took Jesse places. He took his first trip to Europe with Pak. Ron introduced him to the Japanese band RUINS, Jesse’s weird-rock heroes, when Pak opened for them in early 2001. Through Ron, Jesse met people who would come to define his life as a serious musician in New York City. “I would say Ron is one of the biggest musical influences in my life, no question,” Jesse said. And Ron Anderson first played Jesse The Shaggs. “It was a weekday night and Ron had cooked for us,” Jesse said. Ron’s food was always delicious and tonight he was serving his band jasmine rice at his apartment, which was lined with gear, books and odd artistic artifacts. “His Brooklyn apartment looked like the squat a European musician might have,” Jesse said.
“Ron would always turn us on to great stuff and he knew that I loved Zappa and I loved Beefheart and he said, ‘You have to check out The Shaggs,’ and he put it on.” Jesse was the kind of person who would put Frank Zappa and Madonna on the same mix tape, so the fantastic weirdness of The Shaggs didn’t really phase him. “We sat at his table and we were listening and I said ‘Oh, this is cool.’ ” But the strangeness of an instrumental fill in the second track, “My Little Sports Car,” really made Jesse sit up and take notice. “I’d never heard anything like that. It just took me. It really gripped me,” he said. The Shaggs had a new fan for life. “That moment was when I realized that this band was it,” Jesse said, “this is the new direction of my life.”
Jesse had discovered a new muse to add to his list of musical heroes, who were mostly a bunch of weird and talented dudes. Add to that roster a home schooled, self taught teen age song writer named Dot Wiggin who composed the best song the world will ever know about searching for a lost cat, “My Pal Foot Foot.” When she was just a kid, Dot Wiggin also wrote an anthem for the Halloween holiday that is a thousand times better than “Monster Mash,” maybe a million.
At first, Jesse thought of The Shaggs in terms of the other odd music he enjoyed, like Daniel Johnston, Wesley Willis or early Ween. “But then it started to get a lot deeper,” Jesse said. It began with the first line of the song “Things I Wonder.”
There are many things I wonder.
There are many thing I don’t…
“I can’t believe how great a way that is to start a song,” Jesse said in total sincerity. “There are many things you think about and many things you don’t. So what’s the song about? And the song is sort of about the struggle about the things that you wonder about; and it’s really sweet, it’s really touching, and it’s really weird.”
Jesse fell deeply in love with what Dot Wiggin was singing, those lyrics spoke so clearly to him. He found the musical choices of The Shaggs to be equally profound and inspiring. “It was written over simple chords like G,” Jesse explains, but The Shaggs’s G major is nothing like any other band’s G major, because the guitars on the recording are so out of tune. The mystery of that sonic riddle, the tuning of “Philosophy of The World,” was deep enough to dive head first into forever, but that was only the beginning of Jesse’s journey into the sweet and weird pop songs that Dot Wiggin wrote in the late 60's. Songs like “Things I Wonder.” “You realize that their guitars just happen to be out of tune and their drummer happens to be playing a really weird beat and the production has no bass, but at the core of it is a Smokey Robinson song,” Jesse said.
The Shaggs songs are so strange and special that it is easy for a listener to believe that the Wiggin sisters must be truly strange people as well. Their story, and the professional story tellers who have told it over the years, lends itself well to extremes. Jon Ronson of the BBC called them “musical Kasper Hausers,” which means he was comparing them to the 19th German kid who was raised in a dark dungeon and then set free on the streets of Nuremberg. Susan Orlean wrote about them in the New Yorker and projected “melancholy” and “foreboding” onto the photo of the Wiggins on their album cover. Orlean told a moving tale focused on Austin Wiggin and his obsession with his daughters’ music and their young lives. The portrait was so compelling that Tom Cruise bought the rights to the story, perhaps imagining himself in the film role as the eccentric father. (Obviously Tom Cruise did not make that movie 15 years ago, but a Shaggs biopic is still something that is in the realm of the possible.)
The New Yorker story reported that the former members of The Shaggs felt somewhat ambivalent about their music. Orlean wrote, “They are wise enough to realize that some of the long-standing interest in their music is ironic,” and Betty Wiggin was quoted saying that “Philosophy of The World” was “horrible.”
Susan Orlean’s New Yorker profile was written in 1999, just prior to Dot and Betty Wiggin playing a few Shaggs songs on stage for the first time since they had quit in 1975. The reunion of sorts (Helen didn’t play) was organized by Terry Adams of the band NRBQ. Both NRBQ and The Shaggs were celebrating their 30 year anniversary. Terry Adams was a big fan of “Philosophy of The World” and had contacted Dot in 1979 to arrange to have the album reissued on Rounder Records.
That reissue of “Philosophy” was the one that Mike Fornatale first encountered at Sam Goody. His weird fate to actually cross paths with Dot Wiggin was about to come to pass because of what Jesse was about to do.
A decade after Jesse first heard The Shaggs, they were fully absorbed into his musical world. His life as a professional had matured, with gigs and lessons he was making a living in the big city doing music full time. He decided to organize his first tribute show, where a big group of musicians do a series of cover songs along some theme. “I have lots of great musician friends, that’s putting it mildly, all of who are much more talented than I am,” Jesse said regarding the company he keeps.
One of Jesse’s friends was the former record store clerk, Mike Fornatale. Now a professional guitar player, a vocalist, and a writer. Mike and Jesse had bonded over their mutual love for weird music and a shared reverence for that genre’s sovereign king, Captain Beefheart. They consummated the relationship with Jesse’s first tribute show, a concert of covers of the songs of Captain Beefheart featuring over 50 musicians. Jesse asked Mike to sing most of the Beefheart parts. “It was spectacular,” Mike said. “By all rights it shouldn’t have come off at all, but it was seamless. Everybody that got up there was great and boy did my throat hurt the next day.”
So Jesse followed that tribute with a concert honoring the music of Spinal Tap. He put together a big, fun show in Brooklyn on November 11th, 2011 (because “this one goes to 11”). “It went over great and we sold the place out,” Jesse said. “And they were actually giving us shit there because there were too many people there.” Jesse says that was the night the guy who ran the club asked for another tribute. “I had to convince them, ‘Hey let my friends in…’ And the guy said, ‘Listen I’ll tell you what. You do another show for me and I wont give you shit for violating fire codes…’ So I had to come up with another idea for a show.”
“OK Jesse what’s next?” Mike remembers asking.
Other People had put together tribute shows in New York and Jesse played a small part in a few of them. He played in a Kate Bush and Bryan Ferry tribute show, a “Rocky Horror Picture Show” tribute show, a David Bowie tribute show. There was a show where musicians played all of “Jesus Christ Super Star” with celebrities like Gene Ween and Dr Know from Bad Brains. With the Captain Beefheart and Spinal Tap shows, Jesse had checked two of his favorite things in the world off his tribute to-do list. It was natural for him to organize a tribute to The Shaggs next because it had never been done before.
“A lot of people say, ‘Oh my God, I love the Shaggs, they’re clueless! They’ve never heard music before.’ ” Jesse said. “No. You’re wrong. It sounds that way, but they do.” They understand music, but not always the same way as everyone else. “And that’s what makes it so fascinating.” He knew it would be amazing to do an entire concert of Shaggs songs.
“Everybody was on board. They were like wow, like god damn. The Beefheart show was astonishing , and that’s impossible music,” Jesse said. “If we could get a bunch of people to play Beefheart music with that much passion and that seriously, then we can do the same thing with The Shaggs.”
“He came up with The Shaggs idea and that same group of musicians would be saying things like, ‘Are you serious?’ ” Mike recalled. “And that’s when he went out and got Foot Foot tattooed on his arm; and we went, ‘OK, he’s serious.’ ”
Jesse’s vision for the Shaggs tribute was to have everyone learn to play the songs exactly as they sounded on the recordings, which might seem obvious, but no one had tried it before. “There was a Shaggs album, ‘Better Than The Beatles,’ but that was covers and that was people making the songs their own, which I usually don’t like,” Jesse said, explaining that he prefers faithful renditions which are not easy. “I can see why people who love The Shaggs wouldn’t even try to approach it because how can you do that, how could you approach The Shaggs?” Asking everyone at the tribute for “faithful renditions” meant that Jesse was laying down a challenge to some of the best musicians in New York. “My thing was you can do it. Yeah, it might seem impossible but we can do it.”
So Jesse assigned groups of willing musicians one or two Shaggs songs which they began to learn on their own. But how? How did these skilled people figure out how to play like the Wiggins had on their old recordings? The musicians studied and analyzed over countless hours, dissecting the choices of the young beginners from another world. The Wiggin sisters had learned to play together in near complete isolation, in their parents’ basement, when they were just kids growing up in a small town in the middle of the last century. The musicians who signed onto Jesse’s Shaggs tribute were big city professionals at the top of their game and they put their backs into learning how to sound just like The Shaggs. They began the work to unravel the mystery of the music one song at a time. What was at the core of these weird tunes? Not everyone could agree.
“It demystifies pretty quickly once you start sitting there and playing it,” Mike said about the songs. “They have their own logic and you follow it. Or else.”
Some of the highly trained musicians chose to dive into the remarkable tunings of the songs they were assigned to, because when you seek to understand The Shaggs, those out of tune guitars seem like a good place to start. “There were a couple of guys who actually worked out the microtones on their iPhones,” Mike recalled,”and tuned their guitars precisely as they had been on the record. Which is a great theory but as soon as you turned it up to a performance volume it just sounded horrible, to me.” Mike asked everyone to dial it back and bring their guitars closer to “just a hair out.”
The big decision was made to tune their guitars “better,” and the music still sounded like The Shaggs. They had determined that the unique tuning on the records was more incidental than essential to The Shaggs sound. But if you listen to Dot Wiggin’s ode to her lost cat Foot Foot, the first thing you are likely to notice after the introductory drum solo wipes your mind clean, is how strange the notes are. “Learning how to play Foot Foot is an interesting thing,” Jesse said. “Mike said such a great thing about this: What made The Shaggs music unusual was that it wasn’t unusual. People said that the Shaggs came up with all these alternate tunings. And they weren’t alternate tunings, they were accidental tunings. Unsuccessful tunings. When you realize that you say, God, these are three chord songs. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. These are lullabies. But they are out of tune and they’re sung in unison and there’s one guitar playing along with it (sort of) and the drums are doing something different. But at their core they are like lullabies. And to me it reminds me of the sea shanties that Captain Beefheart used to sing. I can totally picture Beefheart doing ‘Foot Foot’ a cappella.”
The Beefheart comparison is important to people like Jesse and Mike, because nobody assumes that an artist like Captain Beefheart, with his large body of work, was writing weird songs by accident. But conventional wisdom on The Shaggs has always been that they were totally clueless. It’s clear Beefheart had a vision, but did the Wiggins? Couldn’t an artist have a clear vision but be unaware of how strange it sounds to the rest of the world?
So sitting down and learning to play a Shaggs song on guitar is more straight forward than you might think. “It’s not like you have to learn an alien language, or anything like that,” Mike said. “The music itself is really pretty simple. The guitar melody follows the lead vocal ruthlessly, and the rhythm guitar [parts]… are sort of stapled on to it in — ” here Mike pauses and changes course mid sentence. “I was going to say in a non-rhythmic sense but that’s not correct.”
Travel back in time, tune up their instruments and force the Wiggin sisters into speech therapy to erase their charming New Hampshire accents, and “Philosophy of The World” would still be really, really weird, because the Wiggins worked together as a band to innovate a sense of rhythm that was entirely their own creation. That Shaggs rhythm presented a real challenge to the people trying to learn to duplicate it.
“It’s really crazy,” Jesse said about the different ways each musician had of figuring out their parts. “I learned this stuff by ear and I think every musician has their own way of doing it. Some people would just learn it by ear, note by note.” As an example, Jesse picks the five note melody of “Things I Wonder.” He says the melody’s rhythm defies conventional musical notation and his friend who was assigned that song was forced to learn it beat by beat, there was no other way to count it out. “Other people would try to figure out the chords, detune them and then write their own charts to them,” Jesse said.
But that’s not how Mike did it. To get it to work on paper, he came up with his own solution. “There aren’t obvious bars and beats so much as the chord changes simply follow the melody,” Mike explained. “I just wrote down the lyrics and I wrote down the chord changes. I let the chords fall where they fell and it was just about always in the right spot. It seemed to me that it made more sense to do it intuitively then to ruthlessly try to chart it out.”
Now, because of Jesse, graduates of elite music schools like Julliard and NYU alongside self taught professionals were faithfully working to emulate the unschooled amateurs on these 40-something year old recordings. Jesse had his core group of musicians who had played in the earlier tributes, but there were also super talented Shaggs fans coming out of the woodwork. They’d hear about what Jesse was planning and they wanted in. Like Brittany Anjou. “I heard that there was going to be a tribute to The Shaggs and I said, oh my god that’s awesome I want to do it!”
Brittany had been in love with the innocence and the authenticity of The Shaggs for years, ever since a friend played it for her for the first time. “He told me the story of Austin Wiggin and the palm reader, just the back story of The Shaggs and it was so powerful. Then we listened to the record and I was like, oh my god this is the coolest thing. I just felt like I identified so strongly with it so much immediately.”
At the time she joined up with the tribute to The Shaggs, Brittany was a recent music school graduate. She had been playing piano her whole life and doing things like transcribing traditional Ghanaian xylophone music for fun. It had never occurred to her that she could try to learn to play the music of The Shaggs, even though it was one of her favorite things.
Mike’s method of learning the songs by “stapling” the chords to the lyrics (which stands the classical Western musical tradition on its head) worked for him, but there were several trained professionals, Brittany among them, that had gone so far down the path of their musical education that it was more fun to blaze a Shaggs inspired trail ahead then for them to turn back and play the songs simply by feel.
“No one asked me to do it. I just wanted to see if I could do it,” Brittany said about getting to work to put the unschooled musical choices of the Wiggin sisters down onto music paper. “It’s really geeky, but I was like: I wonder if I could get my Sibelius to play back this, like verbatim,” Brittany lets out a burst of nervous laughter because only the biggest nerd in the world would enjoy attempting such a thing; applying her education, her keyboard and her professional musical composition software to a transcription of “My Pal Foot Foot.” “That’s actually what drove me to do it was: I’m going to nerd out so hard I’m going to see if I can get my Sibelius midi player to try to sound like The Shaggs.”
Jesse recalled what it was like to add Brittany to the team. “Brittany Anjou was sort of the find of the show because she transcribed everything. I don’t know if she has perfect pitch, but she can transcribe anything. She came up with charts for every song she was on. She charted out ‘Foot Foot.’ She charted out songs that are not possible, she worked them out. So we were able to go off of that; now you can play The Shaggs looking at a sheet of paper.”
Making musical charts for players to use when they join a group is the standard way to work in Brittany and Jesse’s world. But as far as they knew, no one had ever tried to chart out The Shaggs before, and they were thrilled to see the weirdness of The Shaggs fixed to the page. They imagined that Brittany’s charts were one of a kind, but they were in for a big surprise.
Jesse had been working every day for five months to put The Shaggs tribute together when he decided to make it a fund raiser for the Wiggin sister’s home town of Fremont, New Hampshire. Specifically the Fremont Town Hall, a very old building that housed the stage where The Shaggs use to play live.
Jesse did his research online and called up a man named Matthew Thomas, the head of the Fremont, New Hampshire historical society. “We talked for a while and he was very thankful for what I had to say and I asked him if he could come down and be part of the show and I could give him a check and he could tell us about Fremont and The Shaggs. And he said, ‘Well I don’t know if I can come, I might have to work that day but I can give you somebody’s number, maybe they can help out.’ I said, ‘Oh who’s that?’ And he said, ‘Oh I’ll give you Dot Wiggin’s number.’ ”
This was never part of the Jesse’s plan. “I knew she was still living… but I hadn’t thought of contacting her. No. Not at all. Not remotely.”
Now he was staring at a piece of paper with Dot Wiggin’s phone number on it. It completely freaked him out. “When Matthew gave me the number I went, oh shit, well OK here we go. So it took me a couple of days to work up the courage,” Jesse said. But when he did finally make the call he had to leave a message, and when Dot called him back he missed the call. Jesse had to wonder if it would have been better just to leave her alone.
When they finally did speak to one another for the first time, it was a very big deal for Jesse, so he tried to remain calm. He told Dot about his plans for The Shaggs tribute show and the idea of having the town historian say a few words. “Once I called her I had a crazier thought,” he said. “Instead of just having Matthew come down and talk to us, talk to the crowd about Fremont and The Shaggs, I would invite all of The Shaggs, all of the living members of The Wiggin family [Helen died in 2006], and their family members and their friends. Put them on a train down to New York and have it be The Shaggs Weekend.” Dot told Jesse that her sisters would be happy to be there but only to answer questions on stage, not to play their songs. Dot listened to Jesse explain that the show would also raise money for the Fremont Town Hall. “I told this all to Dot and she said, ‘Yeah, sounds good.’ ” Jesse said. “It was so simple, and I was shitting a brick… After she told me that she could do it I just ran around shaking,” Jesse said. “And then I had to write an email to the rest of the people in this Shaggs show.”
“So I told everybody, OK here’s the deal the Shaggs will be there,” Jesse said. “And Mike Fornatale… he wrote me right back and he said, ‘I think there is something wrong with your email.”
The stakes of their tribute had just been raised by a whole lot. “Instead of this being a show about us, these huge fans of the Shaggs playing their music,” the show had become “a Shaggs celebration for all Shaggs fans. And it really kind of blew up from there.”
Dot Wiggin and her sisters Rachel and Betty were coming to the show. They were the living members of The Shaggs. (Rachel, the youngest Wiggin sister, joined the band and played bass in the years after “Philosophy of The World” was recorded.) The Wiggin sisters were going to be sitting in the room while their old songs were played live on stage in front of them. Nothing like this had ever happened before. What was it going to be like? Brittany felt blown away. “I just remember hearing that and going: What?!? That’s not possible!”
Jesse had just had the most exciting conversation of his life. He’d spoken to the woman who wrote “My Pal Foot Foot” and invited her to a tribute in her honor, but as near as he could tell it was just another day for Dot Wiggin. “It was special to me because it was historic but for her it was just ‘OK, yeah sure.’ ” Jesse remembered. “And I was to find out, that is how Dot is. Extremely normal. Even though she was in The Shaggs, one of the weirdest bands ever, she is very very normal.”
Dot Wiggin had been simply living her life in Epping, New Hampshire, just up the road from Fremont, when Jesse called.
Back when their Dad had died of a heart attack at the age of 47, the Wiggin sisters had put down their instruments and quit the band. They were women in their twenties and they were ready to move on with their lives. There had been countless performances, “dances” at the town hall, and some other trips into the studio to record, but after they disbanded in 1975 the only evidence left that they had ever been musicians were however many vinyl copies of “Philosophy of The World” that there were out there beyond the boarders of Fremont. Dot held on to the master tapes from their studio sessions as well as some personal mementos that she kept safe in her home, and that was that.
She didn’t know that there even were fans of her music outside of Fremont until she and Betty took the stage in 1999 for that one-off performance with NRBQ. “The only thing we heard really was whatever we read on the internet: Worst Best Band Ever, and all the negative stuff, and we really didn’t know we had a huge fan base until 1999.”
“We just figured,” Dot said, “while we were in the band and we were playing and performing at the dances and stuff that was one life and then we moved on and started our adult lives. Working, getting married, having children. A completely different life. So when we went there for that and saw the fan base we had we were really shocked.” Dot says she and Betty met Shaggs fans who had traveled from all over the world to see them, from the UK and from Japan. “One fan, he was from California, Howie I think, had… Foot Foot tattooed on his leg but he didn’t do the inside and he had me draw the inside markings with the magic marker and then he went back and had it tattooed after. That was pretty interesting. Pretty shocking actually.”
Dot said that when she and her sisters traveled to Brooklyn for Jesse’s tribute show they didn’t know what to expect. The Wiggins and their guests were seated off to the side against the wall of the club. Dot’s son Matt, who was about the same age as Jesse, was there with her. Matt had been keeping his Mom’s music alive in her home since she herself rarely, if ever, listened to it anymore. When he was younger, Dot says her son had “downloaded” a copy of her Shaggs CD onto his laptop to play when he went to bed at night. These days, Matt has his Mom’s old songs on his iPhone.
After months of planning and countless hours of study and rehearsals, the tribute show for The Shaggs was about to begin. Jesse Krakow had invited Gary Lucas to kick things off after the opening act. Lucas had played guitar with Captain Beefheart, aka Don Van Vliet, near the end of his career. “I’m so honored that he’s invited me to be here to open this thing,” Gary Lucas said from the stage. “The Shaggs have a very dear place in my heart. And I have to tell you I’d sent a copy of their album to Don Van Vliet, Captain Beefheart, who said,” Gary Lucas put some gravel and gravitas into his voice to mimic his friend, “ ‘This is something else.’ ” Then Gary Lucas switched back to his own voice, “I never heard anything quite like it, although there were people who heard affinities with a certain era of Beefheart music, and what can I say?… The first moment I heard ‘Philosophy of The World’ I was hooked. So great that they could show up in person. Really a magic and historic night.”
Gary Lucas performed a short “Shaggs-inspired Fantasia” on his guitar and then it fell to Mike Fornatale to set the tone for the evening just before The Shaggs songs were to begin. Mike was worried that the Wiggins might think people were making fun of them. He wanted to draw a clear line between love and condescension. He stood before the audience, holding up his very own vinyl copy of “Philosophy of The World” and gave a speech to make sure that everyone there, Wiggin sisters included, understood just how sincere they all were about this music.
“Why are we here?” Mike asked, Shaggs album in hand for everyone to see. “Because we get it! We did not buy this, bring it home, play it for our friends and say ‘You got to hear this man. It sucks.’ We didn’t do that. We get it.”
Mike proposed a short thought experiment to the audience: Fill an empty room with brushes, pens and paper and let some kids go at it. Then show the results to a group of adults and they will understand that they’re looking at children’s art. But take that same empty room and fill it with a different set of artists’ tools: guitars, drums, the 12 tone western scale, and the 4 beat measure and give children the freedom to experiment and those same adults will often cover their ears and frown.
“They’ll go ‘That’s not music!’ ” Mike held the album up a little higher. “This is not only music, this is the purest, most honest, most wonderful collection of diamonds and stars that I have ever heard in my life.”
Then Mike strapped on his slightly out of tune guitar and was joined by two other musicians. They began to play the title track from “Philosophy of The World,” and the living members of The Shaggs heard their own songs being played for them by serious musicians, one song at a time, for an entire evening.
“I didn’t know what to think until it started on the stage,” Dot said. She told her friends and family that were there beside her that if she closed her eyes it was like listening to her past. “It was as if we were on the stage doing it, playing it, singing it, the whole thing. That’s how perfect they were, on pretty much all of them. It was really awesome.”
Reuben Radding took the stage to play guitar and sing on “It’s Halloween,” but first he told a story. “This was the first Shaggs song I ever heard. Which I heard when I was about 14 years old, listening to my clock radio in bed at night with the flash light so no one would know that I was up late listening to the Dr. Demento radio show. And I heard this song and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I loved it so much. And I managed to find someone with a copy of ‘Philosophy of The World’ and I made a tape of it and I listened to it over and over and over and over again until I finally found a copy of my own and I bought it. It’s really an honor to be here and to play this song.”
Before the experimental musician Elliot Sharp played guitar on “Why Do I Feel,” he told his own Shaggs story. Here was an established avant garde composer telling the Wiggins that they belonged in the same club. “In 1978 I was living in Western Massachusetts, and I walked into my favorite local shop and the owner kinda smiled at me and handed me The Shaggs ‘Philosophy of The World’ and he was shocked that I knew what it was. But he was even more shocked that I loved it. I mean, it was incredible and in fact it resonated so much with everything else that I was listening to, you know Ornette Coleman, Xenakis, Captain Beefheart, anybody who had a unique and individual vision. And I think all of us who have grown up, for so many years listening to the Shaggs, it’s part of their DNA. I hear it my way, it’s going to come out in the music I do. We have that within us in the music we make too,” he looked to Dot and Betty and Rachel and said, “Thank you to you guys.”
And it continued like that, song after song from The Shaggs catalog being covered by skilled performers who spanned generations. One of Jesse’s 12 year old music students sang “Who Are Parents” along side guitarist Chris Butler, founder of the 80's new wave band The Waitresses. “I was just thinking about how amazing this music is,” Chris Butler said to the audience after he played. “Everyone here worked unbelievably — you have no idea how hard it is to play this stuff! You have no idea! There’s an awful lot that has been said about, ‘Oh, it’s ironic. It’s not really so bad it is good,’ Uh uh. Let me tell you the truth. Everyone up here worked their asses off, trying to get good on their instruments, really really hard.” Chris Butler looked to the members of The Shaggs sitting in audience. “So did they! They really worked — when you listen to the record, they really worked hard to be good. And they succeeded.”
The musical portion of the tribute show concluded with the performance of “My Pal Foot Foot” sung by Irwin Chusid an early and influential fan of The Shaggs. The first chapter in Irwin Chusid’s book “Songs in the Key of Z” was a well researched account of how “Philosophy of The World” came to be. Irwin Chusid was joined on vocals by R. Stevie Moore, the underground recording artist who first played The Shaggs for his friend Irwin in 1978. Irwin Chusid took a moment to talk about Harry Palmer, the man who dreamed of booking The Shaggs on The Tonight Show back in 1970 and who told everyone he could about this crazy record they just had to hear. (Harry Palmer also happens to have been R. Stevie Moore’s uncle!) The band played “My Pal Foot Foot” as a sing along with cue cards, and then busted out “Wheels,” an instrumental tune The Shaggs had covered back in the day.
“Wheels” is rolling along as the audience is applauding. Jesse thanks the three dozen musicians by name and the crowd cheers more and the music swells and he invites Dot, Betty and Rachel to take the stage for the first time.
“We were nervous — wasn’t sure what they were going to ask,” Dot said.
Dot stands next to Jesse on stage as the applause crescendos. Jesse puts one arm around Dot and the other around Betty and they all take a bow together, the stage full of musicians and the Wiggin sisters.
“This show was all about the love,” Jesse would say years later. “And everybody felt the love going out and coming in.”
All of the months of planning and rehearsals had been focused on the old recordings and getting the songs perfect, but now in this moment the living artists are standing here in the flesh in front of everybody, and all of these enormous fans are about to get their first chance to hear what The Shaggs have to say, unfiltered and straight from the source. After a little warm up, Jesse asks the question on everyone’s mind: Do The Shaggs have any songs from their “Philosophy of The World” days that were never recorded or released?
“There are some other songs,” Dot says and members of the audience gasp, “Some were recorded on master tapes and some were just played but never recorded.” Dot is saying that there are “lost” Shaggs songs that the fans have never heard. Someone in the crowd claps once loudly and someone else shushes them, as if they’re afraid the Wiggin sisters might be easily startled.
“Really?” Jesse asks, playing it cool, “You want to sing a couple of bars?” The crowd is enthusiastic, but the Wiggin sisters stand mute. If they remember the tune to any lost Shaggs song they’re not telling.
“Do you remember them?” Jesse asks again, just in case.
“I remember the titles,” Dot says. “ ‘Speed Limit’ was one. ‘Place in My Heart,’ that was probably the last song I wrote with music.” Dot says there was also an old Shaggs tune called “A Christmas Song.”
Now members of the audience are excited and whispering amongst themselves. Perhaps encouraged by the love and enthusiasm in the room, Dot’s memories begin to shake loose. She remembers another 40 year old song title, “Your Best Friend,” which she tells the crowd is about pets, triggering “awwws” and delighted giggles. Then Dot remembers the lyrics for the chorus, which she tosses out there. “Your best friend is your cat or your dog, your horse or your hog.”
Jesse, who has written more than a few love songs to his cat, agrees. “Absolutely.” He is beside himself.
“We had horses back then,” Dot says. “I don’t remember all the rest right off the top of my head. That’s good enough.” The audience applauds and in that moment the next chapter in the creative life of Dot Wiggin begins. Those unreleased Shaggs songs would soon become the first tunes of The Dot Wiggin Band.
The day after the tribute show and before they returned to New Hampshire, Dot and her sisters were the guests of honor at a small luncheon at Jesse’s apartment. Jesse and Dot talked about collaborating on Dot’s unrecorded songs. “She said I’ll send you what I have,” Jesse recalled. “Two weeks later she sent me this big batch of sheet music, songs she wrote for The Shaggs that were never recorded called ‘Speed Limit’ and ‘Your Best Friend.’ ” There were old lyrics with no music too. “The Fellow With A Happy Heart” and “Banana Bike.” Of all this incredible stuff, perhaps the most exciting for Jesse was the original music for songs that Dot wrote for “Philosophy of The World,” musical documents that were older than he was. “She included the sheet music for ‘Foot Foot’ and ‘Things I Wonder’ and ‘Philosophy of the World,’ all charted out,” Jesse said. “That was a shining moment.”
Dot had charts for her old songs! This was a revelation.
During the run-up to the tribute it had tickled Jesse and his friends that Brittany Anjou had worked so hard to create her first-of-their-kind charts of Shaggs music. “The funny thing is we thought, OK this is interesting. Here’s a really great, schooled, NYU jazz musician charting The Shaggs.” Saying that part out loud still makes Jesse giggle. “Music that can’t really be transcribed correctly, because it is so alien. And then we find out that Dot — she wrote out her stuff just like that… The way that Brittany did it, which we thought was insane, was the way that Dot had done it, had been doing it, for all these years. Which was even more insane.”
“The only difference is that I have to wear glasses now,” Dot says about performing her music with The Dot Wiggin Band as opposed to her younger days with The Shaggs. “We always had the music stand and we always read the music, the sheet music; and even Jesse didn’t know that. He didn’t know that the sheet music existed.”
Dot Wiggin had given up playing guitar half a lifetime ago, but she had never stopped writing songs.
When Dot talks about her instrument her voice gets wistful, maybe even a little nostalgic. “I don’t have time to really put the time into it and practice, and during the winter and the cold weather my fingers crack around the nails so I wouldn’t be able to play anyway. It’s all I could do to work sometimes, you hit that spot where they’re cracked [it] kills.”
But when Dot talks about her guitar you can hear the pride in her voice. “I still have my guitar but I don’t do anything with it, the yellow one.” It’s the guitar she brought to the tribute to show to Jesse. He put it on a stand in the center of the stage.
Even without playing music, Dot had continued to write down song lyrics. “I guess because I really liked it,” she says. “I don’t know. Something would come into my head and I would jot it down and put it away. A way to get my feelings out I guess.”
The first song on Dot’s new album “Ready! Get! Go!” is “Banana Bike.” She wrote it around 2002.
“Banana Bike is about my sister Helen,” Dot says. “She lived with us for a while. And she was having her bad days and her mental problems and she had gone to a yard sale and picked up this — do you know what a Sting-Ray bike looked like?” The Sting-Ray was a popular bike for kids in the 60's. Dot says that her sister Helen got a hold of one late in life and rode it into the ground. “She picked up this Sting-Ray bike at some yard sale and started just taking off on it.”
Referring to Helen’s yellow Sting-Ray as a “Banana Bike” makes Dot laugh, she and her sisters were always extremely close. “One time we had to go visit my niece or something and [Helen] didn’t want to go. So I said, ‘All right you can stay home.’ So after we left she took off on her bike and we come home and she’s sitting in one of our vehicles in the drive way with her arm in a cast. She had taken off on her bike and gone on one of the busy streets, hit a pot hole and fell off the bike and fractured her arm.”
"She'd take off, not telling us and then we didn't know when she'd come back. I'd get in the car sometimes and go looking for her," Dot remembers. "She hadn't heard it with the music because I didn't write the music. But after I had written it I read it to her and she said, 'Dot, you making fun of me?' I said, 'No, Helen. I'm not making fun of you. I'm just showing you what you put us through, basically.' But uh-- not too sure she was too happy with me right then. But I think it's kinda like looking in the mirror. Mirrors don't lie. You see what you are whether you like it or not. And it was like the truth. Telling her the truth through the lyrics. She wasn't mad about it. I just think she wasn't crazy about it, that I wrote about her."
Dot sent the “Banana Bike” lyrics to Jesse and he wrote the tune. He says the best compliment he has ever been given was when Dot told him she liked it. “I wrote the music to her words and then she told me that, yeah that’s the way that I wanted it, that’s the way that I heard it and that’s the way I would have done it,” Jesse said. “That’s pretty cool.”
Back on stage at the tribute show, Dot is talking about her song writing style, which she’s aware is pretty unconventional. “It just came from my head,” she tells the audience. “I wrote the lyrics first and then I wrote the melody and then I wrote the chords.”
Mike Fornatale was floored. “That sort of statement goes flying right past you, but suddenly it hit me. That’s why people who don’t really understand this music think that the drummer doesn’t know what she is doing,” Mike said. “Well Helen knew exactly what she was doing, she just wasn’t doing what Dot was doing. Because the songs follow the melody, rather than the meter.”
Which is one of the simple truths about Dot’s old songs. It’s not all about the out of tune guitars and it’s not about their thick accents singing in unison, it’s their accidental invention of what we can refer to as “Shaggs Time.”
“Most of the great innovations that mankind has come up with have happened when someone was trying to do something else,” Mike said, comparing the Shaggs sound to penicillin. “The Shaggs music happened when they were trying to sound like Herman’s Hermits. Literally. Dot will tell you as much. She was trying to sound like Herman’s Hermits. That was her favorite band.”
Dot’s innovation was to write a melody to go with her lyrics that were basically written in free verse, meaning she wrote without worrying about every line fitting a particular meter. It’s why Shaggs songs sound weird to a world raised on 4/4. They were singing free verse pop music.
Dot Wiggin is not the only self-taught musician to play that way. It reminded Mike Fornatale of the old blues guys. “There’s a very famous Lightening Hopkins quote when he was recording with a band, which he didn’t usually do; and he tends to follow a bar of four with a bar of three-and-a-half and a bar of seven and the musicians are going, ‘No Lightening, it should change in this spot here,’ and his answer was, ‘Lightening change when Lightening ready to change.’ And with out being so ruthless as that, that’s exactly what Dot did when she wrote songs… Everything falls where it falls.”
When critics denigrate The Shaggs and the songs on their first album they often make fun of Helen Wiggin’s skills behind the drums, but Laura Cromwell says those critics are dead wrong. Laura was one of those super fans who found out there was a Shaggs tribute happening and jumped at the chance to join in. Now she is the drummer in the Dot Wiggin Band and no one else in the band can imagine doing it without her. She says she’s been a true fan of Helen’s style from the moment she first heard The Shaggs in the 1990's. “I like her touch,” Laura said. “She has this very light touch. I feel like she’s like a little goat jumping around in a field of flowers or something.”
Laura is not kidding when she says that Helen Wiggin has been one of her influences as she has been developing her own drumming style over the past 20 years. “She has a feel that is just so innocent, so guileless… so happy, so sweet and it’s just charming. There’s a sense of vulnerability there, a hesitancy, but at the same time a strong sense of interconnectedness with the guitars, with Dot and Betty, with the voices.” It’s a strange mix of total confidence and disarming vulnerability that makes Helen Wiggin stand out.
“I never heard anyone else approach playing drums that way,” Laura says. “Her groove is not really centered on time alone and what measure she is in, but it’s on Dot’s singing or what the guitars are doing.” Laura finds this different kind of interconnectedness very beautiful and inspiring.
“What’s going on there back in the drums?” Laura asks with sheer delight. “It’s just perplexing. And yet you can’t help but smile. And I guess the vulnerability in it and the playfulness in it. I feel like that is a different voice than I’ve heard from other drummers that I love. I love John Bonham too, at the completely opposite end of the spectrum.” Laura appreciates the unique musical vision of Helen Wiggin. “I want to hear that voice.”
Laura’s proud to be playing Helen’s parts when she performs Shaggs songs in Dot’s new band. “I’ve always identified with [Helen] just instinctively, musically speaking. She’s a maverick. Dot told me, Helen just did what she wanted to do. She wasn’t forced to do anything, she just did what she wanted to do. She always said it in a proud way. I know that there is deep love between the sisters. I know that they miss her everyday. So I know she must have been a really good person. Unfortunately I never got to meet her but she seems wicked cool to me.”
The crazy charm of “Philosophy of The World” is that The Shaggs are as loose as you can be with the rules of pop music and yet the band is tight. Despite the dominant opinion of the last thirty-something years, the Wiggin sisters were a great band. “The haters laugh at them for being loose but in reality if you’ve really listened to their music, they’re so tight!” Laura says. “They play the same parts, the same way every time and the relationship is the same. And they’re really listening to each other. They’re just hearing things a little differently then the rest of us are.”
It’s this idea of The Shaggs doing things their own way that made Brittany Anjou call them the Grandmothers of Punk, which delights Jesse to no end. “God. It’s such a great assessment of The Shaggs: They’re punk without being punk.”
Mike agrees that even as youngsters, the Wiggins knew what they were doing. “I really have to point out, for people who think that they couldn’t play their instruments, if you listen to those lead guitar lines that follow the melody, Dot is a very precise musician. She just isn’t hearing what the rest of us are. There’s no clams on those records. There’s no missed picks. Everything is very, very solid.”
Dot says that she and her sisters took weekly music lessons for two or three years when they were teens. “We took guitar lessons from Ted Herbert’s Music Mart in Manchester. I took guitar, my sister Betty took guitar, Helen took drums and then Betty and I took voice lessons at a private home, a woman in her home, in Manchester also.” But Dot is also clear that she was self taught as a song writer. “However I never did learn how to write music, only how to read music, so I did the rest on my own.”
“Dot wrote all this stuff out meticulously by herself,” Jesse says. “She is a composer.”
Back on stage at the historic Q&A session, the Wiggins were dropping more juicy tidbits from their storied past. They played every Saturday at the Fremont Town Hall dances for about two years before the band broke up. “It would only cost a dollar to get into the dance,” Rachel told the crowd. “One dollar!” The Shaggs played their live cover version of “Gimme Dat Ding” extra fast at the dances because the kids enjoyed a good, swift polka. “End of The World” by Herman’s Hermits is Dot’s favorite song. Betty likes country music. Rachel’s old favorite is “Time In a Bottle” by Jim Croce (which got a warm round of applause from the Brooklyn crowd) and now she is a fan of Tim McGraw (which landed like a thud but made one fan laugh out loud with pleasure.) Dot is not interested in changing the old album’s sound, but if forced to choose she says would have emulated the production style of Herman’s Hermits.
Jesse reads another question submitted by the audience. “Do you enjoy listening to avant garde music? If not, what kind of music are you currently listening to?”
“I listen to the oldies station a lot,” Dot says.
“I like ABBA,” says Rachel.
Jesse takes a moment from the stage to explain why the question is relevant. “The Shaggs had a tremendous influence over avant garde and experimental musicians… The first time you hear The Shaggs — ” Jesse pauses, searching for the right words, “What the hell is this?” To which Dot rolls her eyes as if to say, here we go again, but Jesse quickly makes it clear that: confusion in the listener is not the same as confusion in the music. “The more you listen to it, the more it makes sense. And now I think a lot of people in this room listen to The Shaggs and it’s completely normal. We can talk about it to other people, we say ‘Oh it’s pretty far out for you because you listen to Led Zeppelin. But for us this is organic music. And I really think, I hope you know how much of an influence you had on avant garde and experimental music.” Jesse holds one arm up over his head to illustrate the size of the influence. “If Captain Beefheart is the Dad,” and he raises the other arm and says, “The Shaggs are the Moms.” Giants both. The audience agrees.
Now it is winter, crazy early on a Friday morning, and members of The Dot Wiggin Band are making a record. Today they load into two cars for the 250 mile drive to Dot’s house so she can sing her songs on the album. They arrive in the afternoon and the first thing Jesse and Dot do together is go and pick up pizza from Dot’s church. “They have a pizza party every Friday,” Jesse said. “And we came back and we started recording in her living room.”
Mike brought his laptop to record Dot’s vocals. He set it up on her couch. “There’s a TV in the corner which is playing the Elvis channel all day,” Mike said. “There’s a video game right behind me, where her son is playing video games. There’s her dog Newman, her pug on the floor going [snort-snuffle-snort the way pugs do] throughout the proceedings. And there’s Dot, standing over by the couch, holding a piece of paper, singing. Yeah, It was fairly surreal.”
“Dot had some of her family members sitting on the couch. She had her son standing behind her, her dog was at her feet,” Jesse said. “I was next to her. People were coming in and out. The phone was ringing. It was just like being a part of the family,” he laughs “Just being in her living room trying to make this record.”
“Completely different than the old recording days, that’s for sure,” Dot said. “It went pretty good.”
Dot said that the hardest part about recording this album as opposed to her younger days was remembering when to come in without a guitar in her hands. Back then her guitar parts were her guide, “Because I played the melody and when I played the melody is when I came in to sing.” Now all she had were her vocals, “So by me not playing anything it was hard for me, when to come in to start like a new verse.” But once she got the hang of it, the process of recording an album in the 21st century was “pretty much a lot easier.”
Recording the music for Dot’s new songs presented Jesse and his band mates with a challenge a little bit like the one they had at the outset of The Shaggs tribute, only now they were creating something brand new. They were making Dot’s first solo album. Clearly it would be listened to by Shaggs fans and compared favorably or unfavorably to “Philosophy of The World.”
“There’s no way your going to make a Shaggs album because that was a moment in time,” Mike said about figuring out how the Dot Wiggin Band would sound, always with eye on the looming influence of “Philosophy of The World.” “If you try to duplicate it everyone is going to cry foul. So the idea was to do something that was in that spirit without sounding like a parody, or a copy cat thing.”
“Out of tune guitars would be a red flag so lets not do that,” Mike said. “But the songs should sound like Shaggs songs and they did because Dot wrote them. The melodies are paramount and the rest of the music follows along as it can.” Mike sat in the producer’s chair and recorded the band at his home studio in New Jersey, in-tune guitars and all, prior to the trip up to Dot’s house. He and Jesse would share producer credit on the album.
Jesse Krakow had invited five musicians from the tribute show to join the Dot Wiggin band. Mike Fornatale, Brittany Anjou, Laura Cromwell, and the guitarists Nick Oddy and Adam Minkoff. With the treasure trove of Dot’s old scores in hand, they got to work trying to play them. “We started putting the music together, playing the charts, but then realizing — wait,” Jesse said, “This is all written but how does this work?”
Since Dot was a self taught composer, the band would find she’d tend to bend the rules in surprising ways. “If there were four quarter notes to a bar, she would do four and a half sometimes,” Jesse said. “So you would have to figure out how to do that. Sometimes you’d have to play things stranger. Once we started playing the music we had a lot of questions to ask ourselves: Did we want to sound like the Shaggs or did we want to sound like a more normal rock-pop band?”
“So that was a constant thing for us, was to try to see what Dot’s stuff should sound like because the truth is, if they had their way [The Shaggs] would have sounded like Herman’s Hermits. It’s not that they don’t like ‘Philosophy of the World,’ ” Jesse said. “They like pop music. They had no idea that this sort of avant garde offshoot would come from their record. So if I was to say, ‘Oh yeah Dot we’re going to have this kinda weird sounding record and it’s gonna be atonal, cavernous reverb sound but just on the bass drum, she wouldn’t know what the fuck we were talking about, nor why should she. So we wanted the music to sound as honest as possible.”
“I tried to keep the chords really simple,” Jesse said about writing with Dot. “A lot of The Shaggs songs don’t have minor chords. Just a simple three to four chord song. OK, so that’s the vocabulary. You take that simple vocabulary, you make the lyrics as honest as possible, you don’t pass any judgement in the lyrics, and you… don’t try to cram the lyrics into the phrase. You cram the music into the lyrics.”
“What got interesting for me was I started writing songs inspired by Dot. And then I would share my ideas with her. Stuff that she inspired me to write, I was influenced by her, I would send it to her and then she would sing it or work on it and then send it back to me.”
“I sent Jesse a couple songs and he wrote the music, recorded it and sent it back to me and it’s like he got inside my head and wrote the music exactly as I would have written it,” Dot said.
“Dot and I had this really cool relationship where I would send her stuff that she would make better. I would send her Shaggsy stuff that she would make more Shaggsy.”
What’s funny is that even though Dot was enjoying writing and collaborating on songs after all these years away from music, she still had no intention of singing them. Her plan was to let the Dot Wiggin Band perform without her. Dot says Jesse called her and broke it down as clearly as possible. “ ‘There’s only one thing wrong,’ ” Dot said quoting Jesse on the phone with her. “ ‘Dot’s fans are going to want to hear Dot sing Dot’s songs.’ I go, ‘Well that wasn’t my plan. You do all the performing, I’ll write the lyrics and I’ll just get the royalties for the lyrics and I’m happy.’ And he goes, ‘Well, I don’t think that’s going to work.’ ”
“I had to explain to her that the only person who should sing Dot Wiggin songs is Dot Wiggin.” And that’s how Dot Wiggin was convinced that it was time for her to sing again after four decades away from music.
Jesse is on stage next to Betty, Dot, and Rachel. He looks through his cards for the next question. “Ooh this is interesting,” he says. “This one is for all of you, this is from John D: Your ambivalence towards ‘Philosophy of The World’ is well documented over the years. Are you significantly closer to reaching some kind of closure regarding the album. Is it possible to accept it on its own terms apart from the circumstances under which it was created?”
The Wiggin sisters listen to Jesse’s question without flinching. Betty looks to Dot to speak for the band and for their family.
“I’m not sure I understand the question,” Dot says. “When we did the album it was like another life,” Rachel and Betty nod in agreement. “So we never thought that it would become what it is now, 35 plus years later. Not sure if that answers your question, but — “ Dot pauses. “We never would have dreamed of it being what it is now and I would have to say that it has to be our father’s dream.”
The audience applauds.
The day after recording Dot’s vocals in her living room, the band travels down the road to Fremont to set up for a full day at the Fremont Town Hall, where The Shaggs performed live every Saturday for a couple of years is the early ‘70’s.
“A lot of the town hall looked different, but the stage was exactly the same,” Dot said. “And the upstairs was pretty much the same, the one big room. They might have redid the floor, but that was about it. It brought back a lot of memories.”
Jesse refers to this next day of work on the album as “absolutely astounding.” “Dot brought her son, Betty brought her family, Rachel brought her family and a bunch of fans of The Shaggs from back in the day came and their family members and people from the Fremont Town Hall Association came. We had like 20–30 people in this room doing a sing-a-long that Dot wrote years ago called ‘A Christmas Song.’ Just being in that room, you’re feeling that energy... It was like ‘We Are The World,’ ” Jesse laughs. “But it’s a better song.”
When they were still playing together, The Shaggs only released the one album “Philosophy of The World.” But in the ‘80’s Terry Adams put together some of collections of songs from the master tapes he had in his possession. If the songs on The Shaggs’s first album are weird, then these other songs are weirder, because they’re relatively normal. The Wiggin sisters have clearly matured as musicians.
“I find it interesting that a lot of people don’t remember that there was a second album,” Jesse said. He doesn’t really consider it a true album, because there’s no consistent theme. It’s made up of covers and a few original Dot Wiggin compositions. There’s one live track. It’s a complete mystery who is playing bass. “But it is a collection of songs from the Shaggs that I really enjoy,” Jesse said. He likes that it sweet and charming and that you can hear that the sisters are changing as artists, but not changing too much. “Maybe they learned how to tune and maybe Helen had a better idea of where the one was, but it’s not like they’re suddenly like King Crimson. They’re still playing the way they played. And I find it to be really dark.”
Jesse was drawn to the original songs Dot wrote that appear on these other collections, particularly “My Cutie” and “Love at First Sight.” He arranged to have the Dot Wiggin Band record new versions for the album “Ready! Get! Go!” “I think people should talk about those songs,” he said.
Jesse says that “My Cutie” has a depth and beauty that nobody associates with Shaggs music. He is convinced that this one old song that Dot wrote when she was younger can hold it’s own against any deep, dark, pop song about an unrequited crush out there today.
The Dot Wiggin Band also recorded a new version of The Shaggs’s old song, “Love at First Sight.” Jesse felt that the old recording didn’t do it justice. “I love the vibe and I love the lyrics, but I felt that it didn’t really go anywhere. And I wanted to sort of take the exact structure and the melody and the words and just dress it up a little bit.” The new version of “Love at First Sight” has Brittany Anjou on piano at the center of the music. On vocals, Jesse had the idea to have Dot’s son Matt sing it with his Mom as a duet. “It’s a love song but it’s not about like ooh baby you’re so hot. It’s like a deep love.”
When they were working on recording “Love at First Sight,” on their second day with Dot on her home turf, Jesse put up on Facebook, “Hey we’re in the Fremont Town Hall, if you’re in New Hampshire come on down,” and Don Davis, saxophonist with the Microscopic Septet, randomly answered the call. He was 20 minutes away. “So he came down and he played horn on it. And he added this like Wayne Shorter saxophone thing that gave the song a totally different vibe,” Jesse said.
They also decided to record a verse of the song with everybody who was hanging out, all of the friends and family, singing together. It’s a chorus of close knit voices singing with each other, making an old love song sound new. And then Jesse played the drums. “I got to play the drums on the same stage that Helen played her drums and that song took on this whole different dynamic. And that’s what I wanted for that song. I wanted to bring out the beauty of that song.” (Jello Biafra of the record label Alternative Tentacles, would tell Jesse that “Love at First Sight” was his favorite track because you could really hear Fremont on it.)
After they were done recording that evening at the town hall Jesse took everyone out to dinner at Applebee’s.
The next morning, Jesse, who’s half Jewish and doesn’t practice religion, woke up early and went to church with Dot. “He stayed at my house and he went to church with me,” Dot said. “I’m in a choir, so when he came to church, I have to go early to practice, and the choir director asked him if he wanted to sing and he said sure and he’s looking and he says, ‘What I’m really interested in, what I really like is that bass guitar.’ ” Dot laughs at the memory of Jesse playing bass in her church. “They wanted to know when he was coming back and I said I don’t know, don’t hold your breathe,” she laughs again.
“Her church was so sweet,” Jesse said. “They said a prayer for me and for all my friends. Dot introduced me. I got to play in the prayer band because their bass player wasn’t there. It was around Christmas time, so I got to play ‘Silent Night’ and ‘Away In A Manger,’ and I got to sing in the choir because they needed a tenor. Dot’s dog slept in my sleeping bag. It was just like having a really cool time with a family member. But it’s The Shaggs.”
With everything the band had recorded at Mike Fornatale’s home-studio, and then up there in Dot’s neck of the woods, they had enough to put together a demo and send it around. And then a funny thing happened. Jello Biafra of Alternative Tentacles called Jesse the same day he got the CD in the mail. Jesse says he’s had a lot of nice conversations with people at different labels, but it’s extremely rare to get a call back that quickly. “Dot Wiggin!” Jello said on Jesse’s voice mail. “Will wonders never cease?”
The Dot Wiggin Band had a genuine record label ready to put out her album on vinyl and CD as soon as it was finished.
Back in Brooklyn, they’re talking about “My Pal Foot Foot” on stage at the tribute. Foot Foot was the name of Dot’s cat in real life when she was a kid. She says she got the idea from an old joke that she can’t remember, but the punch line was something about a litter of kittens with the names Foot, Foot Foot, and Foot Foot Foot. The drawing of Foot Foot was also Dot’s, and it was intentionally weird. “I didn’t want it to look like a cat, any normal cat, so I just came up with two different animals. I think it’s part cat part whale,” Dot says to the crowd’s delight. “Back in my younger years.”
“I will have to say that ‘Foot Foot’ ends with a happy ending,” she continues, “but Foot Foot never came home.”
“I know where Foot Foot is,” Jesse says, rolling up his sleeve to show everyone the tattoo he got before he ever imagined the possibility of calling Dot Wiggin. “He will never again roam,” Jesse says. “Any time you want to come to Green Point, my wife and I will be happy to have you hang out with us and Foot Foot.”
“Very sweet,” Dot says.
“The whole point of this show was to be sweet,” Jesse responds. “Because you really changed how we — not just approach music but approach life. You really opened our minds. I don’t know how every one here feels about The Shaggs, but they really changed how I approach art. More so then any one. More so then any one.”
Big round of applause.
Big, huge fans of the Shaggs are out there and playing live with Dot has given Brittany Anjou a chance to be a part of it all. “It is so cool to watch people meet Dot and, I think, for Dot to meet people. People just give her hugs and want her autograph and it is just so nice to see Dot get this recognition, and I think she really appreciates it.”
“Everyone I met so far is nicer,” Dot says about playing her music now. “I really haven’t heard any negative or mean remarks, I’m not saying they’re not out there. I don’t go looking for them either… But even at all the shows that we’ve done so far, all the fans are excited to be there and some of them sing the old songs, or stand there bobbing their heads or dancing a little bit. There are not a whole lot of them that dance, but they move around.”
For Jesse, the most remarkable thing about Dot’s comeback is how she has grown as a performer, almost over night.
Nine months to the day after The Shaggs tribute show on April 13, 2012, Dot Wiggin returned to the same stage at The Bell House in Brooklyn to debut The Dot Wiggin Band. It was a benefit concert for the radio station WFMU that had been hit hard by Hurricane Sandy. It was an important night for the station and for Dot Wiggin, and massive supporters of both were there.
Jesse remembers that Dot was nervous about performing. He planned out the set list and went over it with her in detail, down to what she could say to the audience between songs so she wouldn’t freeze up. “She actually wanted me to do most of the talking,” Jesse said. Then Dot surprised him by speaking from the heart before they played “Banana Bike.” Dot told the audience that the song was for her sister Helen. She sang her song and she cried. It was the first time Dot had sang on stage since 1999.
Later that year, Dot took her first ever trip to Baltimore, Maryland when she drove herself down there to open for Half Japanese. It was the day after the Dot Wiggin Band had its album release show for “Ready! Get! Go!” (Jad Fair of Half Japanese did the cover art) so she had only just walked off the stage in Brooklyn a few hours earlier. Jesse had been worried about Dot, now he admired her.
“Dot got home from the album release around 2am, and then drove down to Baltimore a few hours later, sang on the Half Japanese record, did sound-check, and then did another full set,” Jesse said. “Not bad for a 64 year old. She had more energy than we did!”
When Dot had performed the prior evening and had to wait until after midnight to go on she had been super nervous. But the next day, on very little sleep, she was already getting comfortable performing for the crowd.
“She stepped right up to the mic and said, ‘This next song is called ‘Philosophy Of The World’ and if you know the words, feel free to sing along,’ ” Jesse remembers of that night.
“When we play ‘My Pal Foot Foot’ or ‘It’s Halloween’ people freak out,” Brittany said. “We went to Montreal last September and people were jumping up and screaming when we played ‘It’s Halloween.’ These girls were just like ‘YAYYY!!! IT’S HALLOWEEN!!’ and like hugging each other and dancing around and swinging each other by the arms. It’s just really exciting to see.”
“One of the things that is special about The Shaggs is that it is a voice for the imperfect, for the overlooked, the beginners, amateurs, and it’s an authentic voice,” Laura Cromwell said. It’s what makes the music special for the fans. “We all crawled out from under our rocks,” she said about all of the people who love The Shaggs, herself included. They have been making their way to the live shows to see Dot sing in person. “The Shaggs fans are so sweet, they are rabidly in love with Dot. It’s so great.”
There was one show in particular, at a performance space called The Lilypad in Cambridge, Massachusetts where the Dot Wiggin Band had a magical night. “Those kids were so great,” Laura remembers. “They were just standing there with these huge saucer eyes.”
By chance, the line-up that night was just piano, drums and Dot. No guitars. No dudes. Brittany’s piano parts are based on loving and meticulous work studying all of Dot’s songs, which were written and played on two guitars that were often out of tune on the records. “Brittany is amazing,” Laura said about doing Shaggs music with a piano player. “She has learned this music inside out and it’s a real pleasure to hear her interpretations. What she does on the piano with it is really special I think.”
Dot told the audience at the Lilypad that it was the first time they had performed without the other members of the band, and the fans let her know that it was more than fine with them.
“They knew every tune, they knew all the words,” Laura said about that show. “Shaggs fans are very loyal, very fervent.”
“When you talk about it to people who know The Shaggs it’s like a really deep thing, it’s really profound and I feel like, what they did strikes such a chord for so many people,” Brittany said.
That lovely little show at the Lilypad is what led to The Dot Wiggin Band hooking up with Neutral Milk Hotel for a Spring 2015 Tour of the East Coast, April 13–19th. It’s Dot Wiggin’s first ever “Get In The Van” tour. Not just as a solo artist, but her first tour, ever. Everyone in the band is very excited.
“I have a lot of loose ends and a lot of responsibilities to plan and get ready,” she says about the upcoming tour. There are family and work obligations to prepare for. She has to figure out who’s going to give her dog Newman his insulin shots. Newman is a diabetic pug, devoted heart and soul to Dot. He’s featured barking on the new record. Dot has two pugs who will be staying with her son Matt and his pug Joey while she’s on tour. “So Matt’s going to have fun.”
Once all of those things are squared away, and she’s out on the road, Dot is planning to relax and have a good time. She’s looking forward to seeing her friends in the band, “We haven’t seen each other for some time. I’m looking forward to that. Spending time with them and performing and seeing the fans. Basically I’m doing it for the fans. I’m certainly not doing it to get rich,” Dot chuckles. If it wasn’t for the fans it would be easier for her to stay home. “Otherwise I would just tell the band, ‘Go without me and do it. Do my songs. I don’t care,” she calls out in a sing song, like she’s waiving farewell to her friends as they drive off in the van without her. “But that wouldn’t be fair to the fans.”
In a brief silence during the Q&A at the Shaggs tribute show, someone else in the the audience yells out, “Is this fun for you?”
“It is fun,” Dot says without hesitation, to which Betty adds with a smile, “It’s fun that someone else is up here doing this for us.” Which is one a the few things that Betty Wiggin has to say from the stage this evening and it truly delights the audience.
“Did we do a good job then?” Jesse asks.
“Very good,” say the Wiggin sisters. “It’s nice to be appreciated,” Rachel says.
Someone different shouts from the back, with a touch of attitude, “Does any one in Fremont know about The Shaggs?”
“Yeah they do,” Betty Wiggin says. “They kinda probably put it aside,” she gestures down and away, sweeping the memory of The Shaggs into the past as she says, “long ago. But now it is coming right back into the picture.”
The Dot Wiggin Band played a gig at the 250th anniversary of the town of Fremont, New Hampshire. It was the first time Dot had played live for an audience in her home town since she and her sisters had shut down The Shaggs in 1975. They played “My Pal Foot Foot,” “Who Are Parents” and “Things I Wonder” and they also did some of Dot’s new songs.
Jesse is proud that Dot is actively writing and playing live again, and all of that grew from the tribute show. “When we did the tribute we weren’t trying to tell the story,” Jesse said, mentioning some of the big name writers who have stepped up to the plate to take a swing at The Shaggs, to try to explain why their music sounds the way it does. “What we had to offer was the music… When we did the music it wouldn’t be about us, because who the fuck are we? We’re just musicians. So we’ll play this music better than anybody can play it. And that’s what we did.”
The tribute made Dot, Betty and Rachel see that people loved their music honestly. That there are a lot of people that take their music seriously.
Nick Oddy, who played guitar at the tribute and would later join The Dot Wiggin Band, had a burning desire at the Q&A to ask the Wiggin sisters what it was like for them to be there. What did it feel like to listen to all of their old songs being performed for them by other people?
“I thought it was really awesome,” said Betty. “I really did. Bringing back everything but yet it was really awesome. They did a wonderful job, everybody did.”
Then Jesse springs the last question on them. One word: “Reunion?”
Betty insists “not me,” and remains committed to that position even after the crowd respectfully chants her name. Dot’s answer is just a smile, like she has more in store.