Last fall I was pretty delighted to learn that some smart person at Universal Music Group had put together a compilation of the more or less entire recorded ouevre of The Waitresses, the tuneful, witty combo that originated in the imagination of multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Chris Butler. I say "originated in the imagination" because, as it happens, The Waitresses really were at first an imaginary band—he and his fellow songwriter Liam Sternberg apparently came up with the group names "Waitresses" and "Jane Aire and the Belvederes" sitting in a Perkins Pancake House in Kent, Ohio, one evening in the late-ish '70s. The Waitresses' first hit, "I Know What Boys Like," was initially titled "Wait Here, I'll Be Right Back" (way funnier, if you ask me), and was made by Butler and a couple of colleagues from his then-real (or "real") band, Tin Huey, with genuine female person Patty Donahue on vocals. After that song caught on, Butler was compelled to form a genuine band around Donahue and the travails-of-smart-urban-women concept. "Jane Aire and the Belvederes" made some records too, but that's another story.
Anyway, I was listening to the Waitresses comp, Just Desserts, and marveling at much of it, but specifically marveling at Chris Butler's way with narrative songs, and/or songs one could easily slot in to a narrative, an antic and/or poignant narrative. And I put up an observation on Twitter, as is my wont, saying that it was a shame or a crime that nobody in the great apparatus of showbiz has yet commissioned Chris Butler to write an honest-to-God stage musical. Which observation prompted an e-mail from Chris himself (we are friendly acquaintances, and go back aways; see here) saying "Funny you should mention that," or words to that effect.
Easy Life, the album Chris sent me in the wake of our exchange, wasn't a commission, and as yet there's no actual stage musical of the same name. This song cycle with occasional and eventually crucial narration is sufficiently vivid and engaging enough that you can picture it as a stage production, a movie even. This is not to say it ought not be produced as such, only that the record itself is a coherent and cohesive experience, a highly pleasurable and ultimately very unsettling one. Call Easy Life a bildungsroman interrupted. Most, or many, novels of formation/education end with the hero learning something he'd rather not know, but rarely on this particular scale. The unabashedly autobiographical narrative begins with Chris adopting the persona of his college-age self, at first bemoaning the deplorable state of his living quarters—"I've got a broken window in my bathroom, not to be confused with the five other broken windows scattered around the house"—but then preparing to whistle a happy tune as he celebrates his "Easy Life:" "I love my classes, I've got smart, creative, passionate friends, I'm living off one electrical plug. I'm on food stamps! I'm acting in a play...and I'm in a band." Then the tune begins, with the sort of streamlined descending-ascending guitar riff that kicked off a bunch of the Waitresses' biggest numbers, with a head-nodding bassline and whomping drum beat behind.
There's a catch—of course there's a catch—and you can't miss it. "I could stay here in Kent forever!" is how the-above quoted intro to "Easy Life" begins. The CD booklet places the beginning of the action of this song cycle as Thursday, April 30, 1970—the date of President Nixon's announcement of the "Cambodian Incursion." Protests of that action began at Kent State on the next day, and the Kent State massacre happened the following Monday, May 4. And Butler was there, at the university, although his story is...well, you really ought to hear it.
The scenes and the songs that lead up to the trumatic event depict counter-culture collegiate life at its most typical and at its most atypical. This is Kent, Ohio, not Columbia or NYU, and the bars where the kids hang are rough, but not in ways you'd expect. In one song an undergrad expresses confusion at all the older guys sitting around drinking cranberry juice; the AA meeting just got out, one of them explains, but the fellows still need a place to hang. The protest culture gets a good, approving number devoted to it, even as the young Butler figures he knows enough about history to understand the cyclical nature of social unrest and how he has got its fallacies all sussed out. The Sexual Revolution proves to have solved pretty much nothing for confused horny young guys, or women, it turns out. All these things are conveyed in songs that are very catchy and only a little quirky, or when they're more than a little quirky (as in the slapstick Caligariesque "Box of Noise") have sufficiently strong narrative underpinnings to make them palatable to a listener who might not normally like this sort of thing. Tin Huey, defined its own sense of pop by covering "I'm A Believer," only doing it in the arrangement used by art rocker Robert Wyatt when HE covered it in the early '70s. The work with The Waitresses really expanded Butler's pop horizons, but by the band's second album, Bruiseology, he pushed the more outré elements of the music to a forefront that arguably confused whatever new fans the band had picked up by doing the theme for Square Pegs. With Easy Life Butler finds a really agreeable balance, or maybe it's just that this sort of thing is an ideal platform for what he does best. While the songs are all in a "rock" mode, Butler clearly delights in throwing an advanced harmony or unexpected chord into a pop ditty while still retaining its catchiness. And this is exactly what the composers of the Great American Songbook, Musical Theater Division, made their stock in trade. (A mainstream rock composer who did sort of the same thing was The Who's John Entwistle; his "My Wife," for instance, on Who's Next, does some invigorating sideways-nudging to the standard I-III-IV chord progression.)
Easy Life holds together through its climax, which is at first mordantly funny, then tragically elegaic, and on to a deeply ironic finale, the album's only cover, of John Fogerty's "Fortunate Son." So it's fascinating to learn, via the liner notes, of the disparate sources of the album's songs, and different times they were recorded. The record revives "Heat Night," which was first widely heard on The Waitresses' debut album Wasn't Tomorrow Wonderful? I always felt that anarchic anthem was too testosterone driven, not to mention earnest, for the sardonic but empathetic mode of The Waitresses. Here, in a 1979 "demo" version recorded by Butler and his Tin Huey bandmates, it fits perfectly, a more metaphysically erotic evocation of the same thing Richard Hell was going for with his song "Down At The Rock And Roll Club," a defiant incantation of the transformative power of music. Easy Life finds its hero, a guy who went on to become the present artist, and a great one, stripped of his illusions and presumptions about a lot of things (including the transformative power of music, sort of), and its unspoken coda could not be clearer if Butler HAD articulated it. It's a phrase from Samuel Beckett, one that Butler DID put into Patty Donahue's mouth in the Waitresses song "Go On:" "I can't go on, I'll go on."
Easy Life can, and ought to be, gotten via the artist's own Bandcamp site, here.