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The terrible threes

A new musical gives voice to the Shaggs, a '60s sister act that is renowned in rock 'n' roll annals -- for all the wrong reasons.

November 02, 2003|Irene Lacher | 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 "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."

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.

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."

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