Squirrel Not Zippers

The author, with the band and other people not known to him, ca. 1998

I’m sorry to say I won’t be joining the Squirrel Nut Zippers on the tour supporting the 20th anniversary of the Hot album next year. This will put me in good company: Katharine Whalen, Ken Mosher, and Don Raleigh won’t be there either. The fact is, I was never asked. None of us met in person, or sat in a room together to vibe it out, as I suggested. I just got a text telling me it wasn’t going to happen.

When I talked to Chris Phillips about it on the phone, a week or so ago, I told him that I had put my sword down, and could go out with the band joyfully and with an open heart. That must come as a surprise for some of you, who know how ugly things got after my departure. A couple things changed my mind: First, the litigation issues were settled, long ago. I fought and won back control over the revenue streams for the Zippers songs I wrote. There is no need to duke that out again. (If you don’t know about it, it’s because I don’t think I mentioned it in more than a couple interviews. Don’t want to talk more about it now. Suffice to say everyone became an asshole.)

Second, and more importantly, I have changed over the last couple decades. I had kids, and cared for a son with cancer through his successful (and lengthy) treatment. I was re-sensitized. Moreover, I love the Hot record, the people with whom I made it, and the effect it had — and continues to have — on people I’ll probably never meet. It was a defining moment in my life and career, and I would have been privileged to tour it once more. In this life, some things are much bigger than you and I often find that a profound, if unsettling, comfort. In this case I rushed to embrace it.

And this is the thing that upsets me most, when I think about it. The Zippers crowds were the best a performer could ask for. The energy coming from those rooms was incredible, and it led us to play and sing in ways we didn’t think possible. The fans that would come out and see us now are older, as are we. Many of them, like us, have had kids and lost parents. I so want to see them — to see you — again, to sing to you, to talk to you after the show, in New York and San Francisco and Austin. I’m so sorry I can’t do that.

I can freely admit my bias and still say it’s super lame that things are going down like this. It was likely never going to be a proper band reunion (too many hurt feelings for that), but there were two big singles off that record and I wrote ’em both. Instead, I get to watch as the reanimated corpse of something once so lively rises yet again to walk among the unsuspecting. It’s a drag. Jimbo Mathus is a talented dude — a fine songwriter and a hell of a guitarist — but he has no business singing “Hell,” nor should he continue making a business out of doing so. At least, not once I let it be known I was in for another go ‘round.

Of course the band has the right to cover these songs. Any band can cover any song they like. I didn’t sing “Hell” for years for just that reason: it felt like a cover, like another person’s song. (Many people believe that I get paid every time someone performs one of my songs live. This is not the case, as much as the idea appeals. In that sense, I won’t make a dime from the band’s tour.)

There has been an unexpected upside to this little speed bump, however, and it is that I’ve turned an emotional corner. I held on to the shadow aspect of the Squirrel Nut Zippers for years. It was all the darkest parts, but still had the same shape. That’s how one preserves a relationship that has ended. The experience was too sudden and momentous and turbulent to make sense, its ending too protracted and nasty to move on unencumbered. In the ensuing years, I often felt in the employ of my former self, unable to reconcile my feelings of gratitude and resentment. I played every subsequent move in half measures. I gave my own art short shrift. I more or less lost a decade. More’s the pity.

Once the 20-year anniversary came around, and I was willing to join the band again (at least to take a victory lap), I came full circle. I, “the old man stamping his feet,” have reconciled with my former self, the skinnier dude who was high all the time. We’re cool with each other. Saying yes to the Zippers, internally, has allowed me to get along without them. A space has opened in my heart, after all these years, which can be filled with something new.

Hot is a good record. It could have been better. We cut it in six days. It should have been one in a line of increasingly compelling and similarly unfussy albums by a solid little Southern career band. That’s not what happened, but it doesn’t matter. I’m still proud as hell. With the Zippers, there were several bulls in the artistic pasture, and a situation like that is as interesting as it is unstable. We made it work through shared vision, giddy enthusiasm, and a temporary egalitarianism. It couldn’t last, and it didn’t. The heat that came off the stage when we played was from the collective fire in our bellies. I carry my own with me now. May it burn just as bright for something just as worthy.

The band that might come through your town next year celebrating this milestone for the Hot album will call themselves the Squirrel Nut Zippers. They might also call it a reunion, if shame has abandoned them. You should go see them, if you like. There will be a lot of musical talent on that stage, as well as a fair amount of hokum. It just won’t bear much resemblance to that brief and dazzling spark that once characterized the group. That fizzled long ago, and Hot, the record that shows it ever happened, clocks in at a little less than 35 minutes.