Crumbs of Musical History

The Cheap Suit Serenaders stop off in Berkeley on their way into the past.

The Cheap Suit Serenaders are something of a mystery–even, or maybe especially, to themselves. With a repertoire of vintage novelty numbers, country blues, rags, Hawaiian songs, pop ditties, and the odd original tune, the old-timey string band serves up fractured pieces of Americana that have been gathering dust since the Great Depression. Founded in 1972 by Allan Dodge, Robert Armstrong, and R. Crumb, united by their passion for collecting rare 78 rpm records, the group maintains a devoted cult following despite infrequent performances and a religiously casual attitude toward performances.

“We were kind of staying together on a ranch above Potter Valley and playing all this music,” Dodge says during a recent interview at Oakland house of Tony Marcus–who, with 22 years under his belt, is the newest Suit. “Crumb’s pretty fanatical about old music. I was kind of into it too–that’s how we met. We listened to a lot of 78s and it just kind of filtered into our heads. It was just the fanaticism. Crumb has an amazing memory for tunes, and a great ear. He knows thousands of tunes.”

The Suits’ Saturday concert at the Freight & Salvage, a rare Stateside reunion of all three original members, plus newer Suits Terry Zwigoff and Tony Marcus, and an opening act with vocalist Janet Klein and trombonist (and sometime Suit) Rick Elmore, quickly sold out, so they added a second show. Guitarist Bob Brozman, a longtime Suit, won’t be taking part, since his solo career has heated up in recent years.

“We’ve got people coming up from LA and from all over to see the gig, but if we had a show the next day it would probably be empty,” says Zwigoff, the cellist and filmmaker whose 1994 documentary Crumb explored the life of his bandmate, the seminal underground comics artist. “I think most people show up to hear the patter between the tunes, the sort of chaos onstage.”

Much of the band’s notoriety stems from Crumb, who was the Suits’ nominal leader, though now the band is more of a murky democracy. Crumb’s unmistakable graphic on the band’s Shanachie album Chasin’ Rainbows, one of only a handful of Suits recordings, gave the group a countercultural panache that attracted listeners otherwise unfamiliar with the wonderfully strange world of string bands. The chance of scoring a hit beyond The Dr. Demento Show was probably pretty slim, but the Suits didn’t take any chances.

“We’ve avoided exposure in the national sense,” says Dodge. “We were on Prairie Home Companion once, but rejected a lot of other stuff. Like Saturday Night Live called, but Crumb turned it down and they got Leon Redbone instead.”

“See, we could have been singing for Purina commercials over the years and making millions,” Marcus notes.

“What is the music business, Tony?” Dodge says. “A business of compromises. In some ways we’ve been uncompromising, maybe not in good ways.”

“There’s actually been remarkably few occasions that we’ve been asked to compromise,” Marcus says.

If the band has studiously avoided raising its national profile–since Crumb moved to France it does semiregular European tours–that hasn’t dampened its influence on other eccentric outfits. The Asylum Street Spankers, for instance, who recently released a gloriously stoned album of ganja-laced tunes called Spanker Madness, cite the Suits as a primary source of stimulation. The Suits’ inspiration came from the old records that documented the music played in communities before radio began the process of homogenizing American culture. Not that there’s any musical consensus among the Suits. Part of the band’s shambling, off-kilter charm is that the members range so freely through the forgotten byways of Americana.

“We all have different tastes and we’re all pulling in different directions,” Zwigoff says. “I like older ragtime music in general. Bob Armstrong likes novelty music and Hawaiian stuff. Dodge likes this murky, sweet, hotel dance-band music of the early ’30s. Crumb has a certain thing in his mind about jazz. And Marcus is much more into swing. It doesn’t quite all hang together.”

The Suits indulged their love of anachronism by recording what may very well be the last 78s ever made, including that touching animal lover’s ode “My Girl’s Pussy.” Which isn’t to say that the band’s songbook is a bubbling cauldron of creativity. Indeed, the Suits’ repertoire is in what historic preservationists call a state of arrested decay. The band’s aversion to rehearsing, compounded by the logistical challenges presented by geographic dispersion, mean that the Suits pretty much always play the same tunes.

“Maybe we are like the Grateful Dead of string band music,” Dodge says. “We do the same ones and the audience seems to be willing to accept that. We still have a strong rhythm going, and we’re not playing through amps so the energy’s gotta be generated by the persons themselves.”

Are there any plans for the Suits to return to the studio? That seems unlikely. There’s no new music to record, and the band has a certain mystique that might not bear up under further scrutiny.

“We made the records kind of haphazardly,” Dodge says, “and it seems like once a fantasy about something is built up, all you can do is tear it down.”

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