by Terry Roland
With all of the voices that come out of our television, computers and radios demanding our attention to buy their point of view, whether that is “spin,” distortion or blatant lies, it's easy to feel the need to just turn the radio off, shut down the computer or blow up your TV (in the words of John Prine.
But a song can make all the difference. A single voice in the wilderness, comedian singer-songwriter, Roy Zimmerman, asks us to take a fresh look at the state of the world through music. He offers insight, songs that are finely crafted and topical, and he gives us plenty to laugh about along the way. Make no mistake, Zimmerman's boat leans to the left. But, where the Left offers someone like Roy, whose show is ultimately affirming to everyone in attendance (conservatives have been spotted enjoying his shows), it seems the best the Right can do is Rush Limbaugh. In a past interview when asked why the Right has failed to produce a truly funny entertainer, he replied, 'it's hard to make fear funny.'
What sets Zimmerman apart from comedians like Bill Maher and Jon Stewart is the music and the constant interaction with his audience. His songs are not trivial. They are accessible and engaging. In fact, to effectively do what Zimmerman does, it's important to give full attention to the songs, as songs. His statements are very much akin to Bill Maher, Jon Stewart and even Will Rogers, but putting the ideas to music links him more to Woody Guthrie - as a musical social commentator.
However you look at it, after ongoing divisive national politics, a national tragedy and the inevitable and seemingly senseless misrepresentation opposition, listening to Roy Zimmerman feels like a relief while fueling up, renewing and regaining our momentum toward creating a more peaceful and tolerant world.
TR: What have you been up to lately?
RZ: We've released a new DVD. People were asking about being able to see a whole show. This is it. It's called Live from the Starving Ear. We got the name from the club, The Hungry Eye. The Starving Ear has become this nightclub of the mind. Then, wherever I'd play becomes The Starving Ear. The DVD was filmed at McCabe's in Santa Monica. We had a really good time filming it. Whenever I say 'we' I'm referring to my wife, Melanie Harby who co-writes songs with me.
TR: Now, you're coming to The Coffee Gallery Backstage in Altadena this Wednesday (1/23/13)?
RZ: Yeah. I love that place. I know Bob Stane. I've been there a few times. Bob goes back to the folk era. He used to book all of the folk singers who'd go through the Ice House. I love the way the tables are set up. It's like taking a step back in time, in a really good way.
TR: Anything else new happening.
RZ: We did a kickstarter project. Last year we decided to do a 50 state tour. So, we took my song 'You're a Republican,' and wrote a new verse for it in every state. It'll be available online.
TR: How did you go over in the deep south?
RZ: We met so many great people. Blue people living in red states. Like in Oxford, Mississippi. They do a lot of work and have amazing energy. There are a lot of people living in these states who are committed to social change.
TR: The last time we talked it was pre-election. What are your thoughts now about the results.
RZ: The first time around it was about hope and change. But, I added struggle to that. So, it was really about hope, struggle and change. My wife and I wrote a song with that as the title. We close the show with it now. So, on Monday it's the swearing in. I think we can safely call this the Obama Era.
TR: And there's quite a lot of resistance to that today-anything Obama does.
RZ: Yeah, the backlash is startling. You know people calling for impeachment because of the gun control proposals. That's just so crazy. It's really even stupid.
TR: What's startling to me is that it's not just crazy people out there but actual Republicans in Congress making these statements.
RZ: You know what I call the Republican Party? The Civil War Re-enactment. Think about it. Look at what states these people come from.
TR: It's all the Civil War states mostly, the Old South. You're right.
RZ: It's a good thing I kept all my Confederate money! There are probably signs up already that say, "We accept Jefferson Davis Dollars."
TR: If feels almost schizophrenic.
RZ: It is. Because there is reality. And here we are, the election is over, Obama won. Yet they live in this fantasy. There are those who are convinced that someone is going to come along and take their guns away. No one has ever proposed that! I have a great idea for governmental efficiency. Have the postal workers take their guns away. I mean, they are there, aren't they!?
TR: That gives new meaning 'going postal.'
RZ: Yeah, they're making up for their past sins!
TR: We have discussed how to do comedy when a tragedy occurs like Sandy Hook.
RZ: The tragic aspect is never funny. Comedy arises out of the hypocrisy, lust, egotism that people show in response to other people trying to do something about the problem. A perfect example is the NRAs clownish position of arming people at the school. How can bringing more guns in the picture solve anything?
TR: It seems that logic would dictate that more guns creates the opportunity for accidents and violence.
RZ: I have a new saying. Just because it happens doesn't mean it's real. An example is Romney for President. It wasn't real. We found out after that he didn't even want to be president. It happened, he ran, but it was never real. It was never really going to happen. The same with the response to Sandy Hook from the NRA. It happened, but it's not real. Humor arises from people like Wayne LaPierre suggesting that guns in school would make the school safer.
TR: Self-serving, really.
RZ: It would make a disaster and a Mai Lai. So, my part is to take things that are funny, only funny things, and put melody and words to them.
TR: I made a joke for myself today. It's kind of dumb though.
RZ: Let's hear it.
TR: What do you get when you cross Roy Rogers with Bob Dylan? Roy Zimmerman! See! Dumb! Somebody's gotta do it!
RZ: (chuckles and groans) Yeah, we have talked about Bob Dylan in the last interview. But, Roy was another one of my heroes.
TR: In what way?
RZ: When I was a kid a singing cowboy he was the best. I didn't know about politics or any of that. It was the way he looked with the outfit and playing guitar and singing with that beautiful, clear voice.
TR: What do you think about Rush Limbaugh's broadcast where he mimicked and mocked the children from Newtown who sent letters to the president and were at the White House last Wednesday?
RZ: I used to think the best defense against people like that was to laugh. I've decided on a new defense. It's called 'just move on.' Let them know, the show is over. There's nothing to see. Don't give them any attention at all. Again, just because something has happened doesn't mean it's real. That's the message I'd give to all of them, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Glen Beck, Ann Coulter. It's great experience in learning about the Serenity Prayer. The part about, 'Grant serenity over things I cannot change.'
TR: Maybe Rush Limbaugh videos should be used in rehabilitation programs as a part of sobriety. Something like that torture scene in A Clockwork Orange.
TR: What's your take on the national mood post-election?
RZ: It's always the same. After an election people drop off like they're falling down a fiscal cliff. After the nervous time when everyone's biting their seats and on the edge of their nails, the day after people start to wane. Four years ago everyone was fired up. This time I saw an enthusiasm gap.
TR: But, it seems like we got hit right away with major issues like how to respond to Sandy Hook.
RZ: This time it seems to be different than before. It feels like things are going to happen because of this. We have to see once all of this hits Congress, who's going to stonewall. It will look pretty bad for them protecting gun owners instead of small children. This is a situation where the public is going to know everything that results from this including how a deal is forged. This isn't something that's going to be taken care of in some backroom.
TR: In today's world there is much more visibility - maybe transparency is a better word. It's harder to hide stuff from the public.
RZ: I think Watergate was the real turning point for this. It used to be that courtesy was afforded people in power. Criminality wasn't called out so openly before that. Overall, that's a good thing. Today we have these great YouTube moments. Like Virginia Senator, George Allen, who was running for Congress. He had that 'macaca' moment when he made that racial slur. It destroyed his campaign.
He was cruising to a victory and because of that YouTube moment, he lost. I need an opposite YouTube moment where I put out something so good it gets that kind of attention.
TR: I notice you do have a lot of videos on YouTube.
RZ: Yes, we have! There have been as many as seven million viewers. It also serves as an initial audition channel. People who are thinking of coming to the show can see what they're in for.
TR: Does all of that Internet traffic translate into record sales?
RZ: Yes. I can always see as I get busy on Facebook or send out more Tweets, my record sales increase.
TR: How does this post-election season affect your show?
RZ: During the election politics is a huge part of the show. Afterwards we focus more on social issues like Same-Sex Marriage and gun safety. I call them kitchen table issues. They have politics within them. It's been interesting to see the country's change on these issues. Like the startling reversal about same-sex-marriage. Four states passed it during the last election. A couple of them were pretty conservative states.
TR: What do you think has brought this about?
RZ: I believe it's perceived even by conservatives that government has no place in our personal business. So, people's minds have changed. I think it's also because people see that someone they see every day who may be gay and they don't feel as threatened as before. They say, 'well look at Ellen DeGeneres,' she's a nice person. They're starting to perform same sex marriages at the Episcopal Cathedral in NYC. Pretty soon they'll be performing marriages at Chick-Fil-A.
TR: Do issues like this remind you of the hard time Lincoln had with slavery?
RZ: Yes! Wasn't that a great movie! Daniel Day Lewis kills it. That's my short review saying things that everybody already agrees with anyway. But, the movie is interesting showing how change actually happens. They had to cajole some people, votes had to be bought. It is hard work to get change. There will always be powerful resistance from people who want to stay with the status quo. When it comes to social issues people always quote Jesus and Thomas Jefferson.
TR: What do you see a second Obama term accomplishing?
RZ: I see him coming out with his gloves on ready for a fight. He's already in the center ring. I hope we'll see some real change. Obama is a chess player, not checkers. In his first term he came in thinking he could seduce, reach across the aisle and form a bipartisan alliance. But, that didn't happen. I never thought Obama could unite both parties. I always knew he could separate a subject from a predicate The real work will done in the first 18 months. After that new candidates come up and people will be looking at Hillary to run. The president seems to realize this. So he seems ready for round two.
TR: Yes. He does seem to have more fight in him this time around.
RZ: I think he'll get out there and 'he's ready to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.'
TR: Any new albums on the horizon?
RZ: I'll be releasing a new album. We're always writing songs.
TR: Don't you have to stay current since so much of your material comes from the times?
RZ: Yes. We are constantly developing new songs. It's like being a stand-up comedian. You try it out and tweak it to make it work. I have some new songs, some new half songs that may become new and some half songs that may become no song.
TR: Roy, it's been a pleasure talking with you. I look forward to seeing your show on Wednesday.
RZ: Great. I look forward to the show.
[Note: Roy Zimmerman will be appearing at Coffee Gallery Backstage in Altadena, Calif. , Wednesday, January 23rd, 8pm-this article also appears in FolkWorks]