TO MANY LONGTIME Seattle scenesters, Rob "Captain" Morgan is a local institution. Others would argue that he belongs in one.
The Squirrels' 11th Annual Christmas Extravaganza
Tractor Tavern, Saturday, December 16
After more than a decade of musical tomfoolery, his Squirrels are the self-proclaimed "last underground band in town," and with the holidays soon upon us, it's time once again for the lunatic yuletide fete that is the Squirrels' 11th Annual Christmas Extravaganza.
"It's pretty much taken on a life of its own," says Rob. "There are people who come every year. They come up to us and say please don't ever stop doing these shows because it's the only way they can deal."
The Squirrels' nutty noel is a holiday hoot, an Xmas pageant from hell where the eggnog has been liberally dosed and the elves have taken over the toy shop.
"We do a lot of real Christmas music in our usual style," Rob says, "where we take Christmas songs and weld them right on top of '70s radio songs: 'Smoke on the Housetop,' 'Peaceful Easy Town of Bethlehem,' stuff like that."
This year's bash will see the long-awaited release of Digital Snowman, which collects all of the band's cockeyed carols. Traditionally available as a cheap cassette, the numbered, extremely limited edition CD (available at www.thesquirrels.com) is designed as a special Christmas crack-up for devoted friends and fans.
"I'm sitting here right now hoping my CD burner doesn't burn out," laughs the Captain. "I'm just cranking them off, one by one. I do the covers; I stick it all together myself."
WHILE HE MIGHT be making CD packages by hand, Squirrels music has seen Rob assisted by an endless array of musical compadres. From their birth in 1984 as Ernest Anyway and the Mighty (Mighty) Squirrels—essentially Morgan backed by the Young Fresh Fellows—the roster has featured members of the Fastbacks, the Frazz, Flop, and the ever-ubiquitous Posies. Today the tradition continues, with Squirrels Group 2000 drummer John Fleischman (a.k.a. Hollis the Bug) moonlighting as skin pounder with Voyager One. ("One band plays space rock," notes the Captain, "and the other one makes fun of it!") The rest of the current lineup includes guitarist Jimmy "J.T." Thomas, keyboardist Tom Morrison, five-string bassist Kevin Crosby, as well as Rob's longtime foil, guitarist Joey Kline.
"We're actually more of a band than people seem to think we are," Morgan says. "People like to go, 'Oh, that band, they have so many lineup changes.' Well, excuse me, but some of these guys have been here for like nine years now. It's been a long time since we were the Young Fresh Fellows!"
Whether they call themselves New Age Urban Squirrels; Crosby, Squirrels & Nate; or just plain the Squirrels, Morgan's madcap collective are part of a glorious tradition of rock 'n' roll pranksters, from Alice to Zappa, taking memorable moments from our musical history and slapping them across the kisser with a healthy dose of surrealist high spirits (try and find yourself a copy of their out-of-print 1990 masterpiece, What Gives?, which includes wonderful renditions of Jonathan Richman's "Vincent Van Gogh" and Tad Hutchison's "The Demise of Ricky Nelson"). Their most recent epic, The Not So Bright Side of the Moon, was cut in 10 short days after Rob became Web buddies with a Dutch music fan who had recently come into some serious dough-re-mi.
"He invented some kind of real-time navigational software that every oil rigger in Europe is using," Rob explains, "and he started kicking around the idea of making a Squirrels album. I said, 'Well, we've always threatened to do the entire Dark Side of the Moon album.' He said, 'Well, that's what I want,' and I said, 'Oh, crap! I really stuck my foot in it now!'"
Designed to both infuriate and delight Floyd fans, Not So Bright is a goofball work of genius that reconfigures the classic rock monument to include fart noises, cod reggae, and Morgan's trademark adenoidal stylings. Alas, the record received little, if any, local press, something that bums out the usually happy Captain.
"I got e-mails from the Tubes, David Bowie, Herman's Hermits, all these weird people I know, going that thing is unbelievably great," bemoans Rob. "But the Moon album got pretty much totally ignored by this town. Next time, we'll hang one mic from the ceiling, tell everyone to untune their instruments, say we're from Olympia, and we'll make a million dollars!"
ON ONE LEVEL, Morgan and company's musical gags are your archetypal Dr. Demento fare, but for those of us raised on '70s FM radio, the Squirrels' freewheeling free association inspires flashes of Proustian nostalgia, a hint of Bփ here, a whiff of Fleetwood Mac there. Rob knows that one man's dumb comedy is another man's pomo deconstruction.
"The people that love us truly love us, and the people that we drive nuts, we truly drive nuts," he says proudly.
Whether you see Morgan as parodist or piss artist, it's damn near impossible to deny the brilliance of cut-and-paste works of patchwork pastiche such as "Hawaii Take 5-0" or "Slow Ride (On a Sleigh Ride)."
"It's the Frankenstein method of song arrangement," explains Rob, "where you go 'Well, we like these verses, but the chorus on that song is way better. So we'll just graft it right on there, make a whole new beast.' We just start fooling around, and then we go 'Hey, this Alice Cooper song fits right on there, and to hell with the chorus. Let's put the chorus of "Runaway" by Del Shannon in there because it's better!' There's not a cover band in the world that would go around doing that!"
Morgan, who also does design work for such kindred spirits as the Presidents and Dread Zeppelin, has self-published (and hand-lettered) the extraordinary Poplust/ Super Boss Rock, a semiannual 'zine filled to the margins with comics, interviews, and '70s rock ephemera—much like the Captain's apartment, which is covered floor to ceiling in pop paraphernalia, all giant posters, fliers, mobiles, stickers.
Obsessed with rock's history but blessedly free of any semblance of reverence, Morgan and his merry band of Squirrels are a genuine rarity in these ironic, iconic times: dyed-in-the-wool rule-breaking originals. Long may they rave.
"We do what we do because that's what we do," says the Captain, "and we're the only ones that can do it."