Saturday, May 7, 2011

Rutle Neil Innes bringing his humor to Martyrs' in Chicago in May


You might know him from his songs, "Knights of the Round Table" or "Brave Sir Robin," which he wrote for the movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."

Or you might know him as the character Ron Nasty, a member of the Beatles satirical band, The Rutles.

Now Neil Innes is in a one-man show, "Short Stories and Tall Songs," which comes May 21 to Martyrs, 3855 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.

The show starts at 7 p.m., and tickets are $12, available at

I had the chance to talk to Innes about a variety of topics, including his life as a Rutle and his connection with modern rock band Death Cab for Cutie.

Q - How long have you been thinking of doing a show like this?

Well, I did it a little bit last year, and it's kind of evolved. You can't write a whole script out, memorize it and do it. It has to evolve. So really, it should be called, "Another Chance To Get It Right."

You don't know what people are going to say sometimes. Every show is kind of different, in a way. We attempt to speak to the theme.

Q - Which is what?

Well, "A People's Guide To World Domination."

Q - Are you trying to cover your whole life in the show?

No, not really. Human existence, yes, because that's what world actually means, if you look it up in the dictionary.

That's the fun of it. Here we are, we go on around grunting these synchronized things, thinking we understand each other, but the world is quite complex, because human beings are quite complex.

And really, everybody is in their own world, you know what I mean?

Q - You've done so many projects over the years. Do you have any favorites?

It was amazing to be in the Bonzos. But what really gave me the most fun was The Rutles. It wasn't planned. It happened. And there's something clean and nice about that.

If The Beatles hadn't gotten so stupidly famous, you wouldn't have had someone in the late '70s offering them $20 million each to get back on stage.

And you wouldn't have had Lorne Michaels of "Saturday Night Live" getting George Harrison on there, waving $3,000 in cash under his nose, which is the musician union's rate for performing.

"Here you are George, all this can be yours, just get the boys back together." It was getting silly. And so something sillier had to be done.

And then Lorne said, "Well, we've got Eric Idle coming to host the show, only because he said he could get The Beatles back together for $300."

And he doesn't have The Beatles, he has The Rutles. 

Q - I understand that John Lennon really loved "All You Need Is Cash," but that he was worried about the song "Get Up and Go" because it was too much like "Get Back."

He was kind enough to say, "Hey, this is great, but I would watch it if I were you." He was worried on our behalf, that the publishers might think that was a bit close. So we left it off the album.

Q - How did you prepare for the role of Ron Nasty?

Most of it was sort of made up on the spot. We knew what scenes we were doing, but for some of them, the dialogue was completely ad libbed.

Q - Did that make the project fun?

Absolutely. It was hard, bloody work, but it was really good fun.

Q - And of course, the song "Death Cab for Cutie" kind of took on a new life with the band deciding to name themselves after the song. Do you see that as a honor?

Oh, absolutely. And also, they have a very good eye for a title. We used to go to the street markets looking for 78s, and among the records, there were some American true crime magazines. On the cover of one was the phrase, "Death Cab for Cutie."

Also on the front page was another story entitled, "It was a great party until somebody found a hammer." We actually did make a version of "It was a great party until somebody found a hammer," but it wasn't quite as catchy."

Q - What's the inspiration for your songs?

It's just something that happens. It's like a bit of a grit in an oyster. You think maybe it might turn into a pearl, it might not. But something happens, and then I get an idea.

And if the idea is still there after a few days, I sort of play with a bit. Sometimes they happen very quickly, like "I'm The Urban Spaceman," I wrote in an afternoon.

The Urban Spaceman is like those people you see in TV commercials, where everything is perfect, with their smiley faces and shiny things. But they don't exist. They are so powerful in a way. And that's what I made the song about.

Q - Why do you think the humor of Monty Python has held up over the years?

I think that all great comedy is timeless. You look at Buster Keaton, and Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin.

You can bring people to tears, both in sadness and laughter. Basically all great comedy is on a human scale, so anybody can relate to it, and at any age as well.

My grandson roared with laughter at the bit with Laurel and Hardy where Stanley is in the car, and he's got a rope around Ollie, and he pulls him out of a first floor window with lots of bricks and what not.

And Ollie hits him over the head with a brick. And almost half a minute later, Stan rubs his head and goes "Ouch." 

Q - So you think it's the fact that it's just great comedy?

It's more about shared experience. It's closer to truth than anything. That's why great humor has this kind of reach that crosses generations and time. It just kind of sums up the human condition.

Q - How would you like to be remembered?

How about in bronze? No, no, I have no idea. I don't think about it. I've never thought about it.

I would like the world Rutle to appear. It's not my word, actually. It's Eric's word. I hated the word. I thought it had to have two T's in it.

But now that it's out there, I would like it to be in the dictionary as a verb, to rutle, meaning to copy or emulate someone you admire, especially in the music business.

The Beatles rutled Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent and Elvis. Mozart probably rutled the first person who ever played harpsichord. 

That's what human beings do. They rutle. Mostly they copy the bad things, but sometimes they copy the good things. That's what makes The Rutles the biggest band in the world.

Q - So will The Rutles get back together?

They won't come back. That was a one off joke. It's nice that's all over the world, you have Rutles appreciation groups and Rutles bands playing Rutles songs.

As a songwriter, that's enough, that people remember your work and want to play it.
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