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The World's Most Surrealist Pauly

Paul Shaffer: photo courtesy of Alchetron

April 13, 2017 | by James Greene, Jr. Oh, the enigma of Paul Shaffer: Has he spent his life cultivating the Kaufman-esque character of an awkward and not-very-hip boomer who believes himself to be just the opposite, or is what we see exactly what we we’d get with this guy if we met behind closed doors?

This is no argument against Shaffer having a sense of humor — as David Letterman’s bandleader, he was affable and always game for the gap-toothed ringmaster’s hijinks, often commanding his own unique brand of laughs. Just as the beauty of the Sistine Chapel cannot be accurately conveyed in a medium like this, one cannot capture in words the hilarity of watching Shaffer dutifully pour glue over a stack of pancakes, or the self-satisfied smirk he wore every time he tickled out an underwhelming theme song for one of Dave’s bits.

Like Letterman, Shaffer never really strayed from Late Night or The Late Show, grinding it on that talk show thing, refusing to branch out unexpectedly. Dave and Paul were side-by-side clowning around for so long humanity forgot about Paul’s existence previously — the guy had his own sitcom (A Year in The Life), co-wrote camp hit “It’s Raining Men,” and was the first person on Saturday Night Live to say “fuck.”

Since Letterman’s 2015 retirement and subsequent disappearing act, Shaffer has all but vanished as well, presumably returning to his hometown of Thunder Bay, Ontario to find more garish, oversized suits and enjoy his own relaxing showbiz twilight.

If you pick up Shaffer’s first two solo albums, 1989’s Coast to Coast and 1993’s The World’s Most Dangerous Party, looking for answers regarding who this guy really is, you will find he is in fact Paul Shaffer As Seen On TV. He doubles down on the persona across both, which could be a shrewd defensive move. Or maybe that is the real Paul Shaffer. Maybe he’s not shy or cagey or removed in private from his onscreen demeanor. Maybe he’s the same flashy, spaced-out weirdo whose greatest kicks come from overdoing this thing we call “rock ‘n’ roll.”

The cover image rendered for Coast to Coast gives some credence to the dual Paul Shaffer theory — it’s Paul standing next to himself, one arm around his doppelgänger. Both wear an expression that says little more than “Paul.” The Shaffer clones find their faces framed by an outline of the continental United States. In a king-sized fuck you to Coast to Coast’s title, the Pauls don’t actually reach coast to coast, unless we’re talking about Lake Tahoe and Erie. The Paul on the right doesn’t even look to be out of the Central Time Zone. See what happens to your work ethic after seven years of Larry “Bud” Melman and stupid pet tricks?

Paul Shaffer: Coast to Coast

More fascinating than the cover of this album is its liner notes, which read like the phone book as they outline the enormous amounts of time and energy that were spent capturing Coast to Coast’s 11 songs. This thing was recorded at 20 different studios across our great nation, in cities like New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Miami, Chicago, and Minneapolis. Several tracks have upwards of 20 musicians performing at once; the opening song, a Frankenstein-y marriage of 1950s doo wop and hulking Reagan-era hip-hop beats called “When The Radio Is On,” has nine vocalists — Carole King and Fresh Prince Will Smith among them — and an editing credit.

That’s no misprint. Shaffer used his elfin magic to get legendary songstress Carole King on the same recording as DJ Jazzy Jeff’s magical partner in rhyme. Incredibly, Dion DiMucci from the Belmonts, Ecstasy from Whodini, and Ellie Greenwich also lend vocals to “When The Radio Is On.” Smith’s turn at the mic is the most memorable, though, in part because the then 21 year old exuberantly raps that “we used to dance to the man with the blue suede shoes!” The Fresh Prince, youthful conduit for Shaffer’s boomer nostalgia (excuse my mucous-like cynicism; for all I know, future Wild Wild West star Will Smith’s entire artistic drive could have been touched off by Tupelo’s creamiest son).

“When The Radio Is On” is empty calorie slop, the kind Nirvana slam dunked out of existence in 1991 (or at least relegated to department store changing rooms). Did it actually escape from a TV movie of the week about an overworked dad who doesn’t understand what life is really all about until the mysterious amulet he bought overseas forces him to swap bodies with his adolescent son? You will wonder the same about “One Cup of Coffee,” on which Shaffer takes lead vocals to no great shakes.

The third track, “What Is Soul,” assembles Darlene Love, Mavis Staples, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Steve Cropper, Bobby Womack, Wilson Pickett, Letterman regulars Will Lee, Sid McGinnis, and Anton Fig, and the Tower of Power Horns (among others) in an attempt to answer a question the narrative wants us to believe has been asked of Shaffer by extra terrestrials, U.S. Congress, and Alex Trebek. Their response is a little stiff, but who am I to argue with this special soul counsel?

Unexpected cohesion arrives with “Metal Beach,” which you’d never believe if you glanced at the credits: Beloved guitarists Dick Dale, Joe Satriani, and Joe Walsh join gentle pop deity Brian Wilson, Wilson’s ding dong physician Eugene Landy, saxophonist Steve Douglas, and Mr. Mick Fleetwood on cymbals for an instrumental that again pours early rock ‘n’ roll affectations into “modern” styles.

However, the best collaborations on Coast to Coast arrive when Paul isn’t trying to arrange his own version of Wrestlemania; two live recordings from Chicago’s Old Vic Theater present Shaffer bluesin’ it up/out with compatible legends Buddy Guy and Koko Taylor plus Animals front person Eric Burdon. The dip into stripped down, straightforward emotion is welcome respite (particularly Guy’s evocative playing), though these concert tracks are so lacquered in post production at first you might be convinced the crowd noise is phony.

Back to hell: Have you ever wanted to hear “Louie Louie” as watery electro funk? Look no further than Coast to Coast’s eighth track. Finally, ‘60s frat rock is molested by Phil Collins.

Bubbling up from another realm, and proving to be the real gem of this bizarre disc, is the four-minute recording of the theme from Late Night with David Letterman — that beautifully bleary-eyed stretch of Koch-era New York City jazz Letterman used as his intro music in one form or another for decades. “Late Night” strips things down to Shaffer and his cohorts from the World’s Most Dangerous Band. What results is the most organic and subsequently robust offering on all of Coast to Coast. Seedy and celebratory, jovial and fussy, “Late Night” says it all about the Big Apple, Letterman’s comedic mark, and the Letterman/Shaffer dynamic. The shadowy cabal of subterranean mole people who run the Grammy Awards agreed; they nominated “Late Night” for a Best Instrumental.

Alas, Paul wasn’t smart enough to conclude Coast to Coast album right there. He insists on a “When The Radio Is On” reprise instead.

“Well, there won’t be a Paul Shaffer album as strange as this ever again,” Coast to Coast sighed once it was released. Then The World’s Most Dangerous Party stepped up and said, “Hold my fucking beer.”

Paul Shaffer & The Party Boys Of Rock 'n' Roll: The World's Most Dangerous Party

Have you ever wanted a double album of the interstitial music from the early ‘90s incarnation of Letterman’s program? You know, abbreviated and mostly instrumental versions of pop hits lead by Paul Shaffer’s inorganic ivories? In your mind, do you envision this collection peppered with nonsensical celebrity cameos and typically loopy remarks from Paul? It’s your lucky century. The conceit of 1993’s The World’s Most Dangerous Party is that we are eavesdropping on the most harrowing get-together ever hosted on Earth, I suppose because so many “names” drift in and out of the venue that if the roof were to collapse we might risk losing Phoebe Snow or Jon Lovitz. We’d definitely lose Paul and the Party Boys of Rock 'N’ Roll, as they’re credited here.

Again, not a misprint. For years prior, Shaffer, Fig, Lee, McGinnis et al were branded as the World’s Most Dangerous Band (clearly inspiration for this CD’s title) as they jammed out aside Letterman. Interestingly enough, deep into this recording Shaffer confirms the group is still called the World’s Most Dangerous Band, but the nomenclature on the cover tells us we’re hearing the Party Boys of Rock 'N’ Roll.

NBC must have laid intellectual claim to the former moniker as this double album was being created, trapping it in a legal hell along with Kenny the Gardener and Flunkie the Late Night Clown. Guess these Party Boys were too superstitious to immediately rebrand as the CBS Orchestra before Dave hit the Tiffany Network (The Late Show With David Letterman premiered in August ’93; The World’s Most Dangerous Party was released a month before that).

Celebrities aplenty show up to Shaffer’s faux soiree, though few actually perform. LL Cool J blesses us with “peace and love and tranquility and harmony” and a joke about having to sneak into the party because of Paul’s “600-pound Chinese bodyguard.” “Beautiful, LL,” Paul responds as the legendary rapper disappears into the crowd. Meanwhile, the Party Boys tear into their Xerox of the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down The House” (vocal free, of course, save a barely decipherable group chant on the chorus). “You’re just like Miss America!” Paul tells Ringo Starr, who agrees to sit in with the band as U2’s “Mysterious Ways” begins ramping up. Spoiler alert: Ringo does not sit in with the band. Blues Traveler’s John Popper was not yet famous enough at this point to tell Shaffer to kiss his ass, so he’s roped into some harmonica work.

“The kids would love to hear you play on this one,” Shaffer enthuses to Popper before they launch into “I Was Made to Love Her.” By “the kids” Shaffer of course means “guys over forty but under seventy in sport coats and jeans.” He also squeezes something resembling a song out of Tony Bennett (“We’re gonna have a funky good time!” the crooner lifelessly repeats over a James Brown cover). The following conversation precedes Bennett’s musical contribution:

“Hey Paul, I mean, talk about the good life — this is the best party I’ve ever been to!”

“Wow, Tony, for you to say that … it’s amazing because you’ve been to every party in the world!”

“That’s why the lady is a tramp!”

Letterman’s writers were apparently not invited to The World’s Most Dangerous Party.

Also turning in enormously sparse work is George Clinton, who tackles half a rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” with Saturday Night Live players Dana Carvey, Mike Myers, and Jon Lovitz on backup vocals. How this union didn’t spin off into its own Traveling Wilburys type of thing is beyond any comprehension. Carvey, Myers, and Lovitz regroup later, making AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” all their own, and again you’re left wondering, “Where’s the album from these guys? All this talent and they’re wasting it on shit like Wayne’s World.”

The World’s Most Dangerous Party is the only place you can hear L7’s Jennifer Finch and Suzi Gardner joking with Shaffer about Bob Mackie between a bit about Lovitz owing Paul 10 grand and Bill Murray singing about a horse. The World’s Most Dangerous Party is the only place you can hear Leonard Cohen fucking around with a vocoder on a cover of Prince’s “1999” that also features running commentary from Bootsy Collins. The World’s Most Dangerous Party is the only place you can hear Joan Jett and Lou Reed in an Olympic sprint to embarrassment (Jett makes reference to her “power crouch” while Reed apologizes for being late because he “had to come across from the wild side”; when he says this you can feel the weight in the heart of every Velvets fan across the globe, like when it came out that Mo Tucker was Tea Party).

Absolutely none of this seems real and every time you feel like you can’t take another second of pop music via Shaffer’s keyboard, a figure like James Coburn materializes for vaudeville.

And so we must conclude, maybe Paul Shaffer is a surrealist, smearing together everything he can from the eras he’s lived through, trying to create a delicious pastiche, not just in his music but in his life and day-to-day actions. The real Paul Shaffer could be everything: a maestro, a jester, a parody, a purity. It’s a riddle at least as complex as David Letterman himself, mercurial talent who never seemed one hundred percent happy with anything, especially when he was on top. Dave, of course, shows up at The World’s Most Dangerous Party — to complain about the noise.

“I’m downstairs lookin’ at my old Love Connection tapes,” he gripes.

That would have been a succinct ending to this bonkers experiment (which, like Manos: Hands of Fate, becomes more hypnotizing and potent the more times you drink it in), but once again Shaffer persists. The World’s Most Dangerous Party actually ends with Richard Belzer in character as Detective John Munch. Munch announces he’s breaking up this raucous gathering and taking Shaffer “downtown” for his crimes against silence. Belzer isn’t all that committed to this joke, but Paul conveys serious worry.

The riddle lives on.

Or does it? In March of 2017, Shaffer quietly dropped Paul Shaffer & The World’s Most Dangerous Band, his most intimate effort to date, which is to say the list of guest stars could fit on a Post It Note. He reunites Fig, Lee, McGinnis, and CBS Orchestra mainstay Felicia Collins to play to the adult contemporary strengths of big timers like Shaggy, Darius Rucker, Jenny Lewis, and themselves.

The results prove to be the world’s most dangerous bland — wave after wave of doctor's office pap a la the least impactful moments from Coast to Coast, cornball airport R&B auto-piloting that makes The Return of Bruno look like Scarface. If this album is remembered for anything it will be the earnest and surprisingly strong vocal Bill Murray lends to “Happy Street” (which should have been in the Peanuts movie that came out a few years ago).

Taken as any kind of coda, does Paul Shaffer & The World’s Most Dangerous Band confirm any great truth about Paul Shaffer? Only that he isn’t comfortable expressing himself unless other people are soaking up the majority of the spotlight. To wit: On this, his third album after god knows how many decades in the biz, Paul assumes lead vocals on just two songs. Two songs on his own third solo album.

Maybe he never got over accidentally muttering “fuck” on live television.

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