Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Dr. Hook's Revenge

When Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show materialized in 1971, people figured Dr. Hook was Ray Sawyer, who with his sinister eye patch dominated the band visually. But the name really suited Shel Silverstein, the Playboy cartoonist who has proved the sharpest formula songwriter of the post-Brill Building era. With his eye for detail and ear for diction, his did-he-mean-that? humor, and his willingness to go for the aorta with a snatch of musical/emotional blackmail, Silverstein was a natural hit machine not in New York but in Nashville. Marvin Hamlisch will never get within winking distance of the sophistication of "One's on the Way," in which Silverstein transformed himself (and Loretta Lynn) into a Topeka housewife who didn't "march for women's lib" but had a line on her oppression anyway. And Mann & Weil's songs for Wild in the Streets--still the most credible specially composed rock filmscore--sound like soap ads compared to those Silverstein wrote for Payday, a much better movie about country music.

At the beginning, Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show was a way for Silverstein--encouraged by the band's producer-manager, Ron Haffkine--to do a rock and roll number. The idea was to combine shameless sentiment with a cartoonist's eye view of the music, something like Roger Miller (before Dr. Hook) and Jim Stafford (after) in country. Silverstein would provide the AM exposure, the band would work out a durable stage concept, and everybody would get rich. Silverstein did his part, providing a top-10 tearjerker "Sylvia's Mother," in 1972, and a top-10 novelty, "Cover of the Rolling Stone," in 1973. But as they learned in the Brill Building, hit singles do not hit albums make, and Dr. Hook's show, while quite durable, wasn't exactly a seamless fusion of sentimentality and send-up. When I saw them on Long Island in 1972, Svlvia had mysteriously acquired either the clap or a fetus, maybe both, and the band got only two-thirds of the way through its money song before collapsing in giggles.

Over the years, the band--now called just Dr. Hook--has changed labels and lost Silverstein while moving toward the country market. They have also scored more hits--most notably on Sam Cooke's "Only Sixteen"--and managed to retain six out of seven members while touring constantly. At the Bottom Line last week they were cornier and more hilarious than ever. Dennis Locorriere, a sexier if less flexible (and funny) singer than Sawyer, became the first mainstream performer ever to induce me to laugh at a punk joke, fit reward for a band that once dressed up in glitter and got booed off the stage as its own opening act. By way of introducing Sawyer's triple and quadruple yodels, he pointed out that New Yorkers have seen almost everything else: "You see people spit up on each other. You see people safety-pinned together."

Locorriere's penchant for the vocal raveup--presumably intended to please the tearjerked and the yockers simultaneously--is unfortunate, and sometimes his infectious laugh gets virulent, but his emceeing made up for his excesses, and the crotch-rock takeoffs by keyboard man Bill Francis (who had been to the hospital with tonsillitis between shows the night before) were a rock critic's revenge. I missed the dance song, "Levitate" ("I want vou to raise your right foot . . . Awright, now raise your left foot . . . No no no no no, don't put your right foot back down"), and the pillheads' diptych, "Wups" and "Do Downs" ("Try not to die/Try not to die"), but "Happy Trails" was a proper encore. "Levitate," "Wups," and "Do Downs" can be found on this live band's best and funniest Capitol LP, Bankrupt, which is recommended; forget the current one, the sobbier Making Love and Music. There is also a Columbia best-of, Revisited, that includes "Cover of the Rolling Stone," still an acute account of the superstar half-life, and "Carry Me, Carrie " based on a text by Theodore Dreiser.

"We're on the road 300 days a year," Locorriere continued after giving us the word on spit and pins. "In and out. We don't see nothin'. We don't know nothin'." Such a humble fellow. Dr. Hook have never pretended to be anything but a bunch of bozos who consider the one thing they really do know, professional rock and roll, no less ridiculous than everything else. What a relief they are.

Village Voice, Feb. 6, 1978