The terrible threes

Special to The Times

In the annals of rock history, there's a squirrelly footnote known as the Shaggs, a small-town girl band that -- despite being named for their trendy hairdos -- could better be described as the anti-Farrahs.

The Shaggs were really the Wiggins -- Dot, Betty and Helen -- three shy, hefty daughters of Austin Wiggin, a domineering man who truly believed his destiny lay in siring Fremont, N.H.'s female answer to Herman's Hermits. They never played beyond Fremont's town hall and nursing home, but 30 years after their album, "Philosophy of the World," was recorded in 1969, critics were still writing about them. And not because they were lost Joni Mitchells. To a select but significant audience including such notables as Frank Zappa and the band NRBQ, the Shaggs were fabulously, spectacularly weird.

When "Philosophy" was reissued in 1999, the New York Times said it "may be the best worst rock album ever made." Debra Rae Cohen, writing in Rolling Stone, called it "the sickest, most stunningly awful wonderful record I have heard in ages: the perfect mental purgative for doldrums of any kind." An Amazon.com "reviewer" was less charitable: "If the smell of an old lady living in a station wagon with 20 cats had a sound, it would be this album."

And now a new musical based on their life, Powerhouse Theatre Company's "The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World," opens Friday at [Inside] the Ford Theatre in Hollywood. Joy Gregory, who wrote the book and lyrics, isn't exactly a member of the Shaggs' rarified cult. Her curiosity about them was piqued by a 1999 New Yorker piece by Susan Orlean, whose book "The Orchid Thief" inspired Charlie Kaufman to write the film "Adaptation."

The New Yorker article may do even more to lift the Shaggs beyond the radar of outsider-music aficionados: Artisan Entertainment and indie writer-director Katherine Dieckmann ("A Good Baby") are developing their story into a film (at one time, Tom Cruise held an option on the New Yorker piece).

Gregory also saw "The Shaggs" as a movie at first, but when she realized the rights were taken she began to see the sisters onstage. "My eureka moment was when I realized this was such an American story and that it would be rich to tell it in such an indigenous American art form as a musical," says Gregory, a writer for CBS' "Joan of Arcadia." "I'm really excited about the recent generation of musicals like 'Urinetown' and 'Batboy,' this genre that's reinventing itself as a scrappy, low-budget, dark, viable new way to tell stories.

"The next eureka moment was realizing the tension in the story is about people with inner hopes and dreams who are utterly thwarted by external factors like an overbearing father and a lack of ability. To tell the story of a failed American attempt at salvation through celebrity and turning the conventions of the musical on its head seemed really right as a way to tell this story."

Prophetic grandma

The story begins with the girls' grandmother's three-part prophecy. When Austin was young, his mother read his palm and predicted that he would marry a strawberry blond, that she would not live to see his two sons born, and that his daughters would play in a band.

After the first two predictions came true, Austin willed the third into existence: He took his three oldest daughters out of school in the mid-'60s, bought them guitars, drums and music lessons and assumed the role of their manager. The girls' lives became a steady din of practicing, doing calisthenics and practicing some more. They were largely isolated because of Austin's tight apron strings, and the songs Dot wrote for them reflected their limited world. Frequently off pitch and rhythm, they disjointedly sang about Halloween, how great parents were and Dot's lost cat, Foot Foot: "I go to his house/ Knock at his door/ People come out and say/ Foot Foot don't live here no more."

In 1968, the Shaggs began playing Fremont's town hall on Saturday nights. "They really weren't in our estimation a very good band, but they were at least something to do on a Saturday night," says Fremont's town historian, Matthew Thomas, who heard them several times as a teen. "With the exception of a couple of their songs, it's pretty tough for me to listen to them, and I know that's how kids felt at the time."

Austin was a mill hand, but in 1969 he poured his life's savings into pressing 1,000 copies of their first record, "Philosophy of the World." The girls could barely play their instruments and the studio engineer suggested they hold off on recording. But Austin insisted, reportedly saying, "I want to get them while they're hot."

In the liner notes, Austin wrote: "The Shaggs are real, pure, unaffected by outside influences. Their music is different, it is theirs alone ....The Shaggs love you ....They will not change their music or style to meet the whims of a frustrated world."

In fact, he nailed what fans would come to appreciate about them. "What the best of outsiders have that 100,000 garage bands don't have is a distinct identity," says Irwin Chusid, who co-produced the RCA Victor reissue in 1999 and wrote "Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music." "I'm not saying it will be in beat or in tune. I'm not saying most people would take it seriously. But when you hear the Shaggs, you know it's the Shaggs. That's an achievement.

"There's also something very sweet about the Shaggs, something guileless, something innocent that lacks self-awareness. It's not a put-on. It's not music by an A&R; committee. This is three girls and their father making music that came from their heart, came from their souls. In other words, it's real."

The immediate response wasn't as generous, however. Only 100 copies survived after Austin left the rest at the studio, but radio stations ignored them. Chusid says it's anyone's guess how musicians like Zappa came to hear them, but his mention of the Shaggs in Playboy apparently led to "Philosophy's" reissue on NRBQ's Red Rooster label in 1980, which was followed by two more repackaged CDs in 1988 and 1999.

The last reissue took some by surprise -- including the company responsible. Harry Palmer, the record exec who'd made the deal, left before the album came out, leaving his successor to market it. Fewer than 4,000 CDs have been sold.

There was an even darker side to their story: Austin was so authoritarian that when Helen secretly married her first boyfriend, she was too scared to tell him for three months and continued to live at home. And when she did tell him, Austin went after her husband with a shotgun. (He didn't use it.)

At the request of Dot Wiggin, who reviewed the script, an allusion to the alleged molestation was deleted from the musical. "We're trying in the play to allow things to hinge dramatically on Austin's overbearing will on the girls and yet be sensitive to the fact that we're telling somebody's story who's alive," says director John Langs.

After Austin died in 1975 of a heart attack at age 47, the band fell apart. A few years later, Dot and Betty moved up to the road to Epping, N.H., where they raised families. Dot cleans houses. Betty works in a kitchen-goods warehouse. Helen has been disabled by depression.

Chusid says that even the Shaggs thought their music stank. "Dot once told me that she didn't think they were very good when they made the record, but she wished they had practiced more before they recorded. I think if they had, we wouldn't be on the phone right now. That's what made the record magical. As someone else put it, they'd reached a level of pre-competence. But Dot thinks to this day they could have done it better. I'm terrified of the thought of them doing it better."

'Misshapen music'

For Gregory and Berkeley-based composer Gunnar Madsen, writing a musical about terrible musicians created quite a challenge, although no one seriously contemplated subjecting an audience to an evening of Shaggs music.

"I find it profoundly depressing," Madsen says. "I'm not one who enjoys laughing at stuff done poorly. I knew it was music made under duress, so it just saddened me a whole lot. So working on the piece, when I had to sit with the music and transcribe it and understand it, it would bring me so far down I'd have to cleanse myself afterwards."

Ultimately, Madsen and Gregory hit on the idea of telling the story with beautiful music as Austin seemed to hear it and then punctuating the musical with clips of Shaggs recordings. "What if the original music is their inner lives," Gregory says, "but whenever the music comes out of them it's the misshapen music that is the Shaggs?"

Casting the Shaggs was a complicated process, director Langs says. He and the group finally settled on actresses Hedy Burress, Sarah Hays and Jamey Hood for their oxymoronic qualities of being able to sing tight harmonies yet sound like novices. "They had to have a certain quality that was off, awkward a little bit, full of what we know about these girls, which was that they were the strangest people in town."

For Langs, the Shaggs' strange story comes through loud and clear. "Austin Wiggin was told the girls would keep the name alive, and sure enough, here I am in 2003 sitting in the theater every night inviting a bunch of people to explore the world of the Shaggs. I hear Austin sing, and it creeps me out a little bit. I feel like I'm participating in the prophecy."

*

'The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World'

Where: Inside the Ford, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood

When: Opens Friday. Runs Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m. Dark Nov. 27.

Ends: Dec. 14

Price: $20-$22

Contact: (323) 461-3673

For The Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 04, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction Curtain time -- The Sunday curtain time for the musical "The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World," opening Friday at Inside the Ford in Hollywood, was incorrectly reported as 3 p.m. in an article about the production in Sunday's Calendar. The curtain time for the show's Sunday performances is 7 p.m.
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