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Rant 'N' Roll : Oxnard Man Writes Songs for a Morton Downey Jr. Album

April 13, 1989|JESSE KATZ | Times Staff Writer

Being a liberal, mild-mannered, slightly long-haired math teacher from Oxnard, Lloyd Schoonmaker would seem an unlikely best friend to one of this country's most reactionary and loudmouthed TV talk-show hosts.

Even more improbable is that Schoonmaker would turn out to be the creative force behind his buddy's new album, "Morton Downey Jr. Sings!," a collection of feisty songs from the man whose shouting matches are seen by an estimated 28 million viewers daily.

"He just called me up and said, 'Lloyd, I want to make you a star. I want to make you some money,' " Schoonmaker said in a telephone interview from the Channel 9 Broadcast Plaza in Secaucus, N.J., where Downey tapes his program. "Now, that's damn nice. That doesn't happen very often in show business."

The 49-year-old Schoonmaker, who met Downey in 1975 while the two were writing patriotic songs for a U.S. Bicentennial record, took a leave of absence last year from Haydock Junior High School to write the music and most of the lyrics for the country-flavored album.

After 25 years of teaching algebra, Schoonmaker said, he was eager to take a gamble on fame. It was also a chance to salute a man whom he sees not so much as his ideological opposite but as a defender of the middle class, in one tune hailing Downey as "America's new hero . . . The Blue Collar King."

For Downey, who has allowed Schoonmaker and his wife, Fredyann, to live with him in both his Trump Tower apartment and Englewood, N.J., home since August, it was just a chance to return a favor to a deserving friend.

"He knows me, he knows my inner self," Downey said in a telephone interview. "When I say we've done everything in life together, I mean it: Eat together, drink together, laugh together . . . we've done everything together but have sex."

The result of that companionship is an alternately combative and sentimental collection of 11 songs, which according to the album notes, were all "inspired by Mort's beliefs." More than 500,000 copies, which if they sell will earn the album a gold record, were shipped to stores earlier this month.

Few targets are spared by the duo. Doctors are attacked in "Operate, Operate," lawyers are attacked in "Lawyer Named Sue," politicians are attacked in "Senator Paperman," yuppies are attacked in "Mr. Yuppie's Birthday Party," and just about anyone else who gets in the way is attacked in "Zip It!"

In "Hey Mr. Dealer," a song attacking drug dealers, Schoonmaker crafted the following verses:

So take your drugs and shove 'em

We've had our fill of 'em

And we won't rest till your ass is on Death Row.

And your epitaph will read

"Here lies a man of greed."

Ya slime-suckin', drug-pushin' S.O.B.

If critical reaction is any judge, however, Schoonmaker will have to suffer a few lumps before he makes it big.

"In a world of few absolutes, TV talk-show host Morton Downey Jr. has given us one," wrote The Los Angeles Times's pop music critic Robert Hilburn. "His 'Morton Downey Jr. Sings!' is the worst album of the '80s. Absolutely."

The New York Times was a bit more urbane. "Mr. Downey's singing is in the gruff country mode of Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson but lacks the emphatic firmness of tone and pitch that gives even spoken monologues by those singers an underlying sense of musical cadence," the newspaper said.

And the Chicago Tribune didn't even bother to review the album. "No, I haven't heard it," wrote columnist Rick Kogan. "I'm relatively sane."

But Schoonmaker, who uses the name 'David Lloyd' in the album's credits, rejects such criticism as a reaction to Downey's television personality and not the quality of the music.

He points to such songs as "Old Man," a sad portrait of an 89-year-old man dying in obscurity, or "Lady of the Night," which ends with a disillusioned prostitute taking her own life, or "Solution to Pollution," a plea against environmental destruction.

"People are attacking his personal thing rather than listening to what he's actually saying in some of those songs," said Schoonmaker, a guitarist who also sings on the album. "If you listen to the lyrics, you'll see a real sensitive side of him."

Raised in Seattle, Wash., Schoonmaker as a young man sang baritone for the Seattle Civic Opera Co. He came to Oxnard in 1963 as a way of being close to Hollywood and his dreams of fame.

In 1971, he got a shot with "Fresno Blues," a song that hit No. 90 on the country charts and still gets some air play in the San Joaquin Valley. Later, in 1976 with Downey, he co-wrote "Lonely Man," an ode to Richard Nixon.

At Haydock, he was one of the "cool" teachers, wearing cowboy boots and peppering his lessons with tales about the recording industry. But he always entertained the notion of making music for a living. With Downey's help, he thinks he might just get his chance.

"I love that man to death and he loves me too," Schoonmaker said. "I always told him, 'Hey, if you ever need a place to stay, you've got a home in Oxnard.' And, even when he started to hit it big, he remembered that."

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