The bassist from "This is Spinal Tap" contemplates aging in the rock 'n' roll life on "Smalls Change" before he plays the Saenger with the LPO Saturday.
Saturday night, Spinal Tap bassist Derek Smalls plays the Saenger Theatre with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra in support of his new album, Smalls Change (Meditations on Ageing). The whole album, show, and subsequent tour, like the 1984 movie This is Spinal Tap that spawned it, is an elaborate dissection of rock ’n’ roll clichés, and it’s funnier for its precision. Smalls Change continues in the Spinal Tap vein as it gives us a heavy metal take on growing old in the form of a bass player’s solo album, as it that was something the world asked for.
Smalls Change, the concert, and even the interviews given to promote them are best understood as a performance and an extension of Spinal Tap. Smalls, not Harry Shearer, has done all the press, grasping cluelessly for profundity that remains just out of reach. The return of Derek Smalls is ultimately an extended exercise in character study. When he wants to address being figuratively and literally defanged by age, his imagination has been so shaped by rock ’n’ roll that it can only go to oral sex for “Gummin’ the Gash.” He has lived inside the rock ’n’ roll bubble for so long that he can’t see the ridiculousness of his life or his reflections on it in the pompous title track and the self-mythologizing “When Men Did Rock,” complete with keyboards from Rick Wakeman of Yes.
Some clichés are more specific to Spinal Tap’s era. We’re largely past the days when everybody in the band would try to put out a solo album, and the bass player’s was never the one fans clamored for, even when it was Gene Simmons of Kiss. Smalls Change mimics those solo albums that count as band service more than fan service, where average ideas were dressed up with a list of guests whose star power threatens to overwhelm the musician who brought them together—in this case Taylor Hawkins, Chad Smith, Waddy Wachtel, Jim Keltner, and Dweezil Zappa for starters. But, like Marc Bolan chopping out the boogie facelessly on Ringo Starr’s “Have You Seen My Baby” on 1973’s Ringo, their contributions are rarely the selling point. You know when you get Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, and it’s fun to hear Richard Thompson play away from type and mimic the musical gestures of countless guitarists before him, but all that talent ends here and in the past is partly leveled by the name on the spine of the album sleeve.
That’s part of Shearer’s conceptual attention to detail. Everything connected to Smalls Change furthers our understanding of Derek Smalls as a character and satirical vehicle. I’m not sure that there’s much to say about ’70s metal and prog metal that This is Spinal Tap and the bands themselves didn’t say first (Seriously, just listen to Deep Purple!), but the subject of aging in rock has some juice in it. Bands don’t pack it in anymore, and fans no longer put away their albums when they get kids and a mortgage. What do we do with rock ’n’ roll’s presentation of studly masculinity in Viagra times? What do you do when the long hair that signified rebellion thins and recedes? Smalls’ answer? “Hell Toupee.” There are probably more limp dick jokes than necessary, but since sex-as-conquest was a central motif for so many of the bands he affectionately emulates, the subject is literally grandfathered in.
Shearer is also enough of a bass player that, surrounded by guitar heroes and drummers who didn’t explode, the music is credible. The album doesn’t require forgiving ears, but character gives the songs a reason to exist, and its easy to hear them all as an extension of Smalls’ aesthetic. Because of that, Smalls Change is admirable and consistently at least smile-funny if not laugh-out-loud-funny (Individual senses of humor may vary).
Still, because Derek Smalls and his tepidly solipsistic world is the subject of the album as much as rock and age, the album holds up as more than simply a collection of jokes. “Rock and roll never forgets,” he sings, “But it sometimes has trouble remembering. / Rock and roll has no regrets / and the last line rhymes with ‘remembering.’”
Harry Shearer talks with My Spilt Milk about playing with famous musical guests in 2012.