Break Like the Wind

Spinal Tap tapped, the Folksmen turn it way down from 11

"But this isn't a farce," says Guest, interrupting.

"It's not a farce. Yeah, I know that," McKean says. At this point it's worth noting that McKean and Guest were roommates, and aspiring songwriters and musicians, at New York University around the same time the folk-music scene was exploding and imploding; they would act out scenes in the room for an imaginary camera, then carry them into the classroom and beyond. They disagree like old friends, in other words; still, this is Guest's film, his vision, his voice.

"There's an investment in the seriousness of the characters, and without that, there's nothing to hang it on in this kind of film," Guest says. "In the Folksmen, who existed prior to this movie, Michael's character has this hunger for being popular. Harry and I are along for the ride, but he's the guy trying to pull us along. So even within the group, there are these different versions of being serious. We talked about this idea when we were on the film. Harry's referred to in the film as the group historian, but that's all relative. He wasn't down in Selma picketing, but he knew somebody who was. It's just one step removed."

Spinal fluids, from left: Harry Shearer, Michael McKean and Christopher Guest as the Folksmen...old folksmen.
Spinal fluids, from left: Harry Shearer, Michael McKean and Christopher Guest as the Folksmen...old folksmen.

"I saved the postcard," Shearer says.

The Folksmen were actually born November 3, 1984, when Michael McKean hosted Saturday Night Live and he, Guest and Shearer performed "Eat at Joe's," presented in the film as the Folksmen's signature hit (it's the song in which Shearer deep-throats the punch line about a diner's busted neon sign, which reads "Ea a Oe's"). That performance was one of the series' highlights that season: Shearer and Guest had joined during SNLs 10th season as its temporary saviors, along with Billy Crystal and Martin Short--"and it wasn't even worth saving then," says Shearer, another unhappy survivor of Lorne Michael's ship.

Nineteen years ago, they had only a skeleton of a back story for these three men; they had their funny song and were going to play it straight, the Tap unplugged and unbound from leather get-ups. And the roots were not entirely deep or deep-felt at the time: The Folksmen were actually hatched, accidentally, as the result of an interview McKean had given to Rolling Stone about Spinal Tap.

"We had talked about this prior to doing the show, about these characters," Guest says. "But McKean [had done] an interview with Rolling Stone, in which they said, 'What are you going to do next?' and he said, 'Maybe folk guys, because we look like folk guys ourselves.' They shot a picture of us as Tap and then on the other page just regularly. And we kind of looked at each other like, 'Hmmm.' That's how that seed got planted. And because we played so much together as musicians and the other stuff, it seemed like a good idea."

"Because we were doing a scene [for Saturday Night Live] that revolved around the tensions of the group, as to what we were going to end up performing on the air," Shearer explains, "we did have a preliminary version..."

Guest interrupts. "Well, you have to, because that was improvised as well. The way these films are done, you have to have a tremendous amount of material as background to be able to improvise. You can't just start talking without any ground rules. You need structure that is, sometimes, more severe than a conventional movie. Otherwise you're lost."

In an odd way, A Mighty Winds feels inevitable, if such a thing were possible. If the three were to remain together as musical, and not just movie, partners, Spinal Tap was beginning to feel a bit, well, tapped out. Eight years after This is Spinal Tap and its accompanying soundtrack, the three regrouped in the studio and onstage for a concert film (The Return of Spinal Tap, a doc-concert hybrid done at the Royal Albert Hall) and album (Break Like the Wind) that further blurred the line between stupid and clever by employing Cher, Jeff Beck, Slash and Joe Satriani--a sort of Vinyl Tap themselves, come to think of it. Only two years ago the Tap played Carnegie Hall; the boys had become, perhaps, too respectable.

"In some ways, this was a relief from the Tap thing," Guest says.

"Spinal Tap is about the bombast overpowering," McKean adds.

"It's also about the sheer aural sort of assault on your senses," Guest says. "I remember occasionally pulling out acoustics and going, 'Boy, this is fun. You can hear.'"

Shearer adds, "Our acoustic sets would be like that."

"Yeah, and this is really fun," Guest says. "And then actually thinking, 'Man, this guy really plays good bass."

"Derek would never agree," says Smalls. Pardon, says Shearer.

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