by Niles Schwartz
I’m a little torn this muggy afternoon. I could go for a run, visit the Walker, or see a movie at the Lagoon. But I feel like I’m missing out by not following my more reckless impulses and heading out to Milwaukee, paying my respects at the open wake and funeral of a guy most of you probably haven’t heard about. Dennis Flemion, aka Dennis Frog of The Frogs, dove into a Wisconsin lake last week and drowned. His body was recovered three days later. I just added him on Twitter a couple weeks ago, and a pair of new Frogs albums were released digitally on June 30, their first in over a decade. Like when Stanley Kubrick died unexpectedly in March of 1999, the world feels a lot emptier to me right now. So it goes when a pillar of one’s adoration disappears. Yeah, I won’t go to the funeral, but I’ll regret it, in spite of miles and dollars I’m saving by resisting a road trip. The pisser is feeling like I’m missing out on one more Frogs show, and that it should be so literally related to death would be the perfect way to end my relationship to this puzzling, irreverent, and brilliant band.
I don’t write about music. I dance and exercise to some of it, and have nothing to offer in the dialogue of what constitutes a good song or album, so work with me. I’ve given up randomly attending “shows,” reserving my music money for a few select bands, most of whom have aged beyond their respective peaks (for example, I’m not attending any concerts this summer, but I’m seeing old-man Morrissey twice in October). Nevertheless, I have to detour away from cinema this week, talking about my love for The Frogs, a band I’ve seen more times than any other. To quote a favorite Frog lyric, “I’m sad because my goat just died today.” It’s not appropriate to compare the dead to a farm animal who had digestive problems (“the piece of poop wouldn’t come out of his belly” though “he only got the cramps once”), but because – and only because – it’s The Frogs, it so is.
I first saw The Frogs, made up of Dennis on drums and keyboards, his brother Jimmy on guitars, and an ever-changing circle of bassists, on a cold November night in Iowa City, 2000. These were fuzzy days of being overloaded with homework, struggling to coordinate socially on campus (i.e., “be cool”), and acclimating to a world that was changing technologically faster than I was able to afford, as luxuries were gradually becoming necessities. These were the days of Napster, when obscure music was suddenly a free click away. The Frogs became one of my first targets (along with Smashing Pumpkins bootlegs). I didn’t know what the hell to make of them. But listening to “I’m Back to Women,” “Sailors Board Me Now,” “Where’s Jerry Lewis?” (in which the Rat Pack telethon icon becomes a pederast targeting young disabled children, anticipating Family Guy’s similar geriatric pervert by several years), etc., I was fascinated, and a little confused.
Putting the output of The Frogs on the same pedestal as another dead hero like Kubrick sounds a little absurd, given how part of this band’s legend derived from their lo-fi imperfection, a rough edged improvised style where the content of songs was disturbingly base, yet the repetitions of that content – mutilation, murder, torture, Satanism, perverse sexuality, usually homoerotic as imagined by a pair of straight guys – only made it more preposterous, disquieting, and entertaining. It wasn’t just offensive. It was relentless in its offense. This was the Id made Music, creativity as an onslaught. The Frogs’ recorded library of made-up songs, homoerotic day-dreams, and sadistic images works as much as any band in creating a distinct “world.” Now, that world is a place where you might not be comfortable, and with titles like “These Are the Finest Queen Boys I’ve Ever Seen,” “Now You Know You’re Black,” “The Benefits of AIDS,” “God is Gay,” “Lifeguard of Love,” “I’ve Locked You in My Dungeon,” and the unforgettable “Who’s Sucking on Grandpa’s Balls Since Grandma’s Not Home Tonight,” an outside observer is in a precarious spot to justify and analyze whatever it was that The Frogs represented. Indeed, did they represent something? Whose side were they on? Were they mocking, or was their world a postmodern study of mockery? It could be gay-bashing, or it could be an ingenious channeling of how homophobic and repressed straights imagine gays, capturing cultural mindsets like the best satirists (Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park are similar). It’s hard for me to think of another project in art that is so blatantly two things at once. The Frogs were beloved by both a progressive and pretentious underground alternative culture and the mindless frat guys. Stepping out on a limb, I’m thinking that The Frogs were modern Bacchian priests, or at least a Bacchian lounge act, stirring together various social energies in a cauldron through which we could see a rippled and ugly reflection. As far as the Flemions’ own description of their music, the official Facebook page says, “[Sound] can’t be described and/or reduced/marginalized – well u can try – think Al Jolson meets 60′s/70′s rock meets burlesque w/some performance art? thrown in – something like that – has to experienced to be appreciated.” That nails it.
In those early days of the internet (early for me, being that I never had a computer aside from school writing labs), I had no visual reference for The Frogs other than Dennis in blackface from the recently released race-related concept CD Racially Yours (wryly dubbed as “The Black Album”). This added to the mystery behind the music, furthering my fascination. According to legend, the brothers Flemion were themselves incestuous gay lovers, and the graphic intensity of the music made the tall tale somehow believable: after a while, when the point of “men get with men” is repeated for umpteenth time, you have to say to yourself, “This isn’t a joke.” The music wasn’t “safe,” or so easily hidden in the comfy label of satire.
So when I walked into Gabe’s Oasis in Iowa City, my eyes sought the makers of “Homos,” “Someone’s Pinning Me to the Ground,” and “Love Me or Die, Bitch” like Salieri in Amadeus, wandering through a rich Vienna chamber and wondering which one of the wigged musicians could be Mozart. (Yes. I have just linked The Frogs to Mozart.) “Is talent like that written on the face?” Salieri asks, and as I pass the drunken punk-rock bar regulars, he continues in my mind, “Which one of them could he (they) be?” The smirking and mischievous gremlin voices of the songs didn’t really match anyone’s physiognomy.
And like Salieri, I was surprised. Dressed super casually before the show, in sneakers, baggy jeans and t-shirts, balding and stumbling into middle age, the Flemions were laser-focused on their audio set-up, gaffing wires and setting up a camcorder, then quietly arranging (very neatly with nearly OCD precision) the merch counter of compact discs, video tapes, and magazine articles that featured them – usually centered around their famous fans and patrons, The Smashing Pumpkins. Jimmy handled the counter while opening bands played, not speaking and signing CDs (just as “Jimmy”), while Dennis seemed to steer clear of people.
Opening this first night was Jeff Hamm’s Minneapolis space-rock act Manplanet, who shared The Frogs’ taste for costumes and pyrotechnics, with a choreographed cheekiness that similarly strutted on the fine line between glam parody and worship (they would become another favorite of mine in the following few years until the eventual break-up). But even Manplanet’s robot-voiced alien/cyborg theatricality, fuzzy televisions, and stage-set mini-explosions couldn’t prepare me for The Frogs. Jimmy, already imposingly tall, came from the club’s shadows with his enormous six-foot-batwings, while Dennis bore his Jolson minstrel visage and wore a see-through striped suit.
They began to play and I was never the same. I was in love. It was theater as low-budget fiasco, spectacle as Ed Wood fantasy, Satan on an unshaven rough patch cursing God from a dive bar, but that made it perfect. They were unpredictable, teasing familiar songs the fans knew (“Grandma Sitting in the Corner With the Penis in Her Hand Going ‘No, No, No, No, No’” – in the running for greatest of song titles), and then retreating elsewhere, like a lover getting his prey aroused and then running away with a cackle, everything – and everyone – unpenetrated and still hungry.
That animosity and duel between creator and consumer is part of the show (and oddly echoed by their friend and adopted brother Billy Corgan’s strained relationship to his fans, on bigger hypothetical and literal venues). In dialogue with their audience, The Frogs deliver the message of “Fuck Off,” one of their staple songs, dedicated to “all those who say ‘make me happy, please me’” and then repeated in “I Only Play 4 Money,” where Jimmy sings, “I don’t give a fuck about the fans / I only play for money / I don’t give a shit if you dance.” The relationship between star and audience is a contentious war, elevated to something perverse considering that The Frogs – who wrote both songs long before their opening-for-The Smashing Pumpkins/Pearl Jam/Lemonheads heyday – never “made it.”
Anyway, the show ended. I went home and quit my university catering job the next morning. I had been rocked by The Frogs and couldn’t be bothered with such frivolities.
Here’s the content of some Frogs songs: “Love in the Sand” explicitly follows a gay affair, where the narrator eventually kills and buries his lover (we hear the muffled epilogue, “Don’t ever cross a faggot” followed by some giggles); “Raped” has the singer perplexed by everyone “making a big deal over the fact that I raped someone/What’s the crime?/I had fun,” then adding the context, “After all she was a nun/And the priest wanted to watch.” And I’m not even mentioning the many songs featuring AIDS victims. In light of his tragic drowning, sensitive listeners might think that Dennis Flemion got what was coming to him. Flemion even comments on this in “U Bastards,” assuming the voice of his disgusted listeners: “You should be sent to hell/You rotten motherfuckers…/For making fun of everything/You can’t tell if you’re serious or not…You’re gonna get yours…” Meanwhile, the next song on the album Bananimals has Dennis screeching about his new sex doll, mentioning his “questionable habit” of sex with priest-cowboys, the primal sex-obsessed id dancing around to a variation of The Beatles’ “Birthday.” That id is all sex all the time, getting to the denominator of all progenation: “Sex doll” becomes “Sexy” becomes “Sex.” The libido drives creativity, as “Rocking and Reeling #2″ begins with Dennis’ asking, “Spare some cock, brother?”
And yet The Frogs were favorites of Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, Eddie Vedder, Billy Corgan, Evan Dando, and Beck, whose Odelay single “Where It’s At” samples Dennis proclaiming “That was a good drum break!” from “I Don’t Care If U Disrespect Me (Just So U Love Me).” Another profane Midwestern freak oddity, Wesley Willis, dedicated to them one of his trademark songs in which he declared, “I like them! I love them! They’re my favorite band in whole wide world!” The Smashing Pumpkins’ 1994 VHS release Vieuphoria devoted a segment to The Frogs, hailing them as “The World’s Greatest Band.” My final encounter with them was December 2008 in Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom, where they opened a 20th anniversary Smashing Pumpkins show; as expected, the crowd was confused, but The Frogs fought back valiantly. They were thieves and paupers breaking, entering, and playing ‘king’ in the aristocrats’ castle. I had a great time.
So, seriously, were they “the world’s greatest band”? Well, it’s easy to say “no,” listening to the clumsy made-up songs wherein the brothers frequently break out in laughter at their spontaneous lyrics, or as a live band, where screw-ups were numerous and stopped songs dead, followed by Dennis pointing out the fuck-up and lashing out – with bitchy humor – at Jimmy or the club technicians (then finally setting his sights on us, the stupid and drunken audience).
But these deficits made it worthwhile, and in a way they’re the element that makes The Frogs one of the great “Failure Stories” in pop music, something to which perhaps many more people can identify in an industry that loves to go on about success stories – or “falls from grace” long after the success has become overripe. Whether a lyric or chord was missed, or Dennis stopped a show to taunt and verbally duel with hecklers, there’s an irresistible agon in The Frogs: the aging, hard-working band who would rather light themselves on fire than peaceably fade out or play the game. Their failure was part of the drama – or the farce. “Play the hits!” I heard once at the 7th Street Entry. I laughed, and I swear to God Dennis looked at me and shrugged. “Hits?” he smiled with a wink. The pomp of their live show was the magnificent pretense to counter the banality and failure to capture rock glory.
Indeed, a lot of the sadness associated with Dennis Flemion’s premature death has to do with how The Frogs finally seemed to give up midway through the last decade, the frequency of their shows slacking until finally their website seemed to go dead (I’m suspecting it may have something to do with Jimmy Flemion moving to Austin, Texas, but I’m not sure). In a 1997 interview, Flemion portended his death with his professional frustration: The Frogs were like “a drowning man,” unable to “make it” as lesser talents were getting millions of dollars (his sole part-time job was that of newspaper delivery man). Corgan and Vedder did their best to pull them out of the water, but the audience and record companies weren’t as amused. The song “Fur z Muzik Biz (10 Years to Waste)” is dedicated to the major labels who only wasted more time for the struggling Flemions, too raw, old, uncompromising, and “un-sexy” to get a deal.
In spite of the “flaws” (which are truly merits), the charm of The Frogs had much to do with how they still were absolutely magnificent performers, bringing the “rock” as a loud live act, their plentiful catalog filled with catchy tunes that one could sing to oneself, preferably while alone; for example, “Look here comes Big Fat George/Look at that butt/Look at him gorge awaayyyy/All of the boys play with his butt.” I confess that too often I catch myself singing Frogs tunes like that to myself, and privacy is best suited for it. They would constantly reinterpret songs, their own and others, in the alternating masks of grueling sludge metal, melancholy (anti) folk, and propulsive fast-moving punk rhythms, and in any version it would be hard to shake from your memory. Jimmy had a masterful rock-god posture, and punched into an ecstatic solo while Dennis’ drums lashed out like his tongue; there was a viciousness to the way they performed, as if the musical instruments were weapons bringing death with laughter. Dennis would sneer after a ripping Jimmy solo, “Watch out, here comes the rock, you fucks!” And the “rock” didn’t discriminate, appropriating other melodies from other performers: “Sometimes When We Touch” to The Sugarcubes’ “Birthday,” where the brothers mimed Bjork’s opening scream, followed by Dennis’ epilogue, “Whatever the fuck that means.” I fondly remember Dennis riffing on Pink’s newly popular “Get This Party Started” before abandoning it when the crowd failed to respond. His sharp eyes worked like a quick strike to the drum surface, communicating “Fuck you and shut up…prrrick,” said in his inimitable “Grampa” voice. Perhaps Dennis Frog’s double in the movies, pulsating with unpredictable Dionysian energy, is Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight, whom, with the makeup, visually and aurally resembles Dennis’ stage persona. Like Ledger’s Joker, who describes himself as a “dog chasing cars; I wouldn’t know what to do if I caught one,” there’s almost no “point-of-view,” no philosophical endgame for this character. The Chaos he embodies, like that of Ledger’s Joker, is almost pure abstraction.
This kind of theatricality, complemented by the affronting content of the songs, gets to what The Frogs’ cthonian theme. They were an art project exposing aggression. Violence and death appear a little too much in their library, and yet that’s the point. Did their band name, conceived in 1980 (on April Fool’s Day, to be exact) when they were just beginning to perform in Milwaukee and Madison coffee shops and clubs, derive from the derogatory slur for a French heritage, the first in a long line of insults? Or was it actually more highbrow, coming from the Aristophanes play The Frogs, which follows Dionysus and explores the uneasy relationship between Comedy and Tragedy – exactly what the Flemion brothers did as pop performers? The Frogs have a self-released album titled Death Songs, which is, well, um, about death and violence. “I Locked You in My Dungeon” begins like this: “At the worst, you will perish/At the best, you will die.” Or “Death Bed”: “This is your death bed/Please lay down.” Try getting those refrains out of your head. Jimmy’s guitar, in all the songs about cruelty, seems detached with playful dissonance, making the fate of the “you” being tortured and killed more chilling, like an insect having its legs plucked off by sadistic smiling children. It’s the musical equivalent to Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. As some film critics pointed out, Hooper’s roughly strewn low-budget slasher vision was a sophisticated projection of the 1970s’ unconscious (whereas Five Easy Pieces and Nashville, for example, represented the consciousness of the time). Could The Frogs be the post-punk/grunge/alternative basement cellar vision of what The Pixies, Nirvana, Pavement, and Smashing Pumpkins were doing upstairs? Relating to another product of the early 1990s, The Frogs were Pulp Fiction’s “Gimp,” hidden below in a cage and let out to do unspeakable things.
Some scholars would make the Marquis de Sade essential reading precisely because he so thoroughly exposes the uncensored human mind, and The Frogs are the de Sades of rock. The Frogs’ corpus has the most startlingly raw images in music, refusing to let up with the excesses in sensation. One thinks de Sade, Burroughs, or Pasolini’s adaptation of de Sade, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom. In “Queen Boys” Dennis sings, “Start by kissing my ass/I’ll start by rubbing your balls…/What will we do when the butter runs out/You’ll probably scream and shout:/Watch out here comes the watermelon seed up my snoot-snout/And that’s your asshole.” “April Fools” takes a sex change and makes it a William Burroughs-styled horror show of corporeal disgust: the subject’s buttocks are transferred to his face (proposing the question, “Where would the poop come out?”), nipples on his eyelids, and an endless assortment of penises implanted all over his body – including one on his belly-button, this one featuring a mouth “that ate the food.” He’s a “walking sex-machine,” but Dennis – no doubt improvising – acknowledges in amusingly overlong stanzas how others are disgusted: “This was goddamned scary when he walked through the village…/When he stood in line to serve his patriotic duty…/It’s kind of rude the way people stare.” He ends the song with one more made-up line: “He said “I’d like all…all…the things put on me covered up with billions of pieces of hair,’” followed by an unexpected laugh from Jimmy after the final strum. Even more perplexing is “Baby Greaser George,” about a three-month-old baby in leather garb who bites off the molesterly narrator’s left testicle. Greaser George isn’t a pet-name for a bondage lover – this story is real and not metaphor – which makes the opening line more frightening and funny: “Ungrateful…that the stroller came my way today…” Yes. The baby bites off this bard’s balls. It’s disgusting. And yet its depravity never gets old for a guilty chuckle. It references the twisted nature of an unmuzzled imagination, putting images in our heads. Just try putting the picture together painted by the song about Grandma with the penis in her hand….
The Frogs and their lyrics also makes them a definitive Wisconsin band. Wisconsin. Land of boredom, cheese, great parties, and, yes, sex-crazed serial killers like Ed Gein, Jeffrey Dahmer, and David Spanbauer. I recall during a 7th Street Entry show where Dennis briefly brought up how Dahmer – having casual sex with young men, killing and eating them, and continuing to have sex with their dismembered bodies, the protagonist of a Frogs song if ever there was one – lived down the road from the Flemions in Milwaukee. Tying the bloody-knived, semen-soaked lyrics to the lovely and casual guitar strumming or piano melodies conveys the malignant darkness hidden within the American heartland. The Frogs are thus kin to the small-town neighborly nightmares of David Lynch or suburban luxuriations in filth of John Waters. The anxiety of mothers directed at men driving vans and selling candy (the subject of “The Man With the Candy”) is right here.
Despite the reputation, The Frogs were not really a “joke” band. They are different from Dr. Demento, Frank Zappa, or Tenacious D. They’re closer to Robert Mapplethorpe. They honestly sought to be taken seriously, and their gay-domination concept was an accident that materialized after their self-titled debut failed to catch much traction. Four Alarm Records offered to put their gay-themed throwaway sessions to print, birthing the seminal It’s Only Right and Natural, the album cover featuring a childhood photo of Dennis with a pink triangle on his chest. There’s no better example of The Frogs’ true pop sentiments and ambitions (discounting their Billy Corgan-produced grunge concept EP Starjob) than the gorgeous 2001 release Hopscotch Lollipop Sunday Surprise, filled with hooks, dreamy melodies, and lyrics which flirt with darkness and sexuality but also tell of inspiration, hope, and love. “The Longing Goes Away,” a slow heartbreaker with a stinging keyboard sample, not only bespeaks this brighter human side, but also brings full circle The Frogs’ tragic Satan complex. Those glam batwings and wicked Dionysian intonations become Miltonian, as the longing lover becomes the cast-out Lucifer or Iblis pining for a lost heaven: “They watch me from the heavens/And although I fall/I dream about you every night/I’m sleeping with your picture tight.” In “Better Than God,” the defiance and laughter of a cast-out devil is repeated: “The kingdom looks different/From down below,” he sings, rousing the people to rebel against a tyrannical deity. The album closer, “Enter I,” makes the singer both a promised messiah and anti-Christ. Hope and beauty are felt, but abruptly exits. Love and Hate are tattooed on The Frogs’ hands, like creepy Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter. Those batwings, songs titled “Hades High School,” “Satan’s in the Manger” and a continuing motif tying Jesus and Satan together as yin-yang brothers, points out a cosmological Miltonian tragedy going on with this band. The music industry (Paradise) has cast them out, and so they retaliate by causing riotous and demonic mischief down below (and like Milton’s Satan, The Frogs remain much more interesting than those who prosper), while also quietly mourning the fading dream of fulfillment and rock and roll salvation. The degree of love in The Frogs distinguishes them from other pop pranksters.
Let me offer this thesis about The Frogs. Too boundless and unorthodox for typical consumption, Dennis and Jimmy Flemion were uncommonly capacious for a rock band. That they are brothers – much like their recurring characters of Jesus and Satan, whom Jung made brothers in his Aion – is fitting. They are mocking and yet serious. They are hilarious and sad, demented and the most sane. They are loud glam and intimate minstrel folk, Midwestern and cosmopolitan, absolutely wrong and yet wise, a “bad band” that nevertheless lives up to the tongue-in-cheek hype as the greatest of all time. They are Christ and Anti-Christ, gay and straight, Adam & Eve and Adam & Steve, the archetypal androgyne tied to great spiritual energies and truths. They are lazy and diligent, infantile and genius, poor and ornate. The Frogs are a great band because they have succeeded to encapsulate the paradoxes of culture and the confusion of our human condition. They embody, better than most works of art, the post-modern chaos their indie contemporaries, too cool to assume a rock-god posture at the altar, only read about in convoluted volumes of Foucault and Derrida. The Frogs, per Aristophanes, are Dionysus, loudly farting to hush the ribbets in a vulgar industry too clever – or cynical – to mind itself.
Dennis died at a time dominated by blogs and tweets. Rants go unimpeded and are carelessly uncensored with self-righteous grandstanding (witness both sides of the recent Daniel Tosh rape-joke controversy). The Frogs didn’t really have an “opinion” so much as they were all-masks all-the-time, a Bacchian circus of personae, and that profane theatricality of performing repressed discontents gave more clarity to what we’re all laughing at (or refusing to laugh at) than any arrangement of words ever could. A recent tweet by a Flemion relative quotes Corgan, “I can hear Dennis in my ear saying, ‘I should be trending, fuckers!’” And it is hilarious that even now, with two new albums and death occurring side by side, “Fame,” in its cheapest arena of info-age electricity, still eludes The Frogs. 50 Shades of Grey, Sylvester Stallone’s son, and Katie Holmes hold the main stage, while Dennis Flemion is stuck in the existential 7th Street Entry, smashing his Pavement, Wesley Willis, and (if he had them) Sebadoh records, defiantly reeling and rocking. But we have the albums and songs, and in the darkness and twisted monstrosities of their irreverent world, I still find unexpected consolation, laughter. On the new album Count Yer Blessingz, Jimmy sings on “Laugh,” “If there’s a face I could make/I would make it/If this would make you laugh/Transfer my heart to Frankenstein/’Cause this one’s breaking/And your smile turns me on.” It’s a simple love song that ties together all The Frogs’ themes: sadness against laughter, the former being life’s condition while the latter must be achieved at any price. Sex and Death, Creativity and Dismemberment (Frankenstein) is the key image, the heart persistently leaping around despite corporeal and libidinous sludge dictating and dooming human drives. Life is short and absurd. The Frogs show us what a great thing it is to smile.
RIP Dennis, and all hail The Frogs.