By Jackson Anderson
I’m finally doing it. I was going to write a songwriter spotlight for Chris McCaughan, and I realized that I needed to finally sit down and just get it all out. It was time that I began to tackle The Lawrence Arms’ The Greatest Story Ever Told.
When I was a sixteen, a sophomore in highschool, I sat in the study hall listening to The Greatest Story Ever Told with near exclusivity. It had the perfect length and cadence for my studying practice, and it was during the period of my punk cambrian explosion. I was attempting to expand my musical horizon as vastly as possible, with the caveat being that it was restricted to one genre, albeit that genre being the broadest genre in music. The Lawrence Arms are –and have been since their inception– a band with a strong cult following. Their fans are dedicated; they know the band’s discography, they go to every obscure basement show, they are aware of each band member’s history and obscure side project. They were intimidating to get into, but the manic relaxation, that intriguing dichotomy, that was The Greatest Story Ever Told kept me coming back to them every study hall. I wasn’t really paying attention to the music that much, but the album became my number one most listened to album of all time before I even decided that I so much as liked The Lawrence Arms.
Perhaps subconsciously, or maybe even via unintentional subliminal gaslighting, The Lawrence Arms began to slowly make their way up my list of bands that I liked; my journey of punk discovery was also very much a journey of self-discovery. Their album had been played so much that of course they had to have been on my mind. Eventually, I began to realize the important thing about punk music was that you couldn’t just passively listen to it, you had to ask yourself why the artist was creating the art. The Lawrence Arms were some of the most complex and expressive artists in this facet, and also some of the most mysterious. The liner notes for The Greatest Story Ever Told are incredibly detailed, and they are also complete hogwash. Band members claim to take inspiration from completely fictitious artists, and each band member takes on a different historical pseudonym, one of which is a reference to the cheesy 90’s sitcom ALF and is appropo of exactly nothing. Another, however, is the name of a character from The Master and Margarita, a novel by Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov, who proved to be part of the genius from which guitarist and songwriter Chris McCaughan tapped in his portion of the album.
Let’s talk about this word “genius” for a minute, here. A recent bit of academic insight that has been imparted unto me from my creative writing teacher is that the word genius does not necessarily denote that one is a Stephen Hawking-esque brainiac. In fact, genius can be a very humbling word for artists, being synonymous with the word “muse” meaning that the genius of The Lawrence Arms’ The Greatest Story Ever Told –a phrase with which I’m sure you’re familiar as it is the title– is to discuss what went into the production of my favorite album, justify that position and hopefully give some insight into why it is so important to me. I do think that The Lawrence Arms are geniuses, but I also think that the album is a product of a genius. That genius may be the three men that wrote the album, the influences that they take inspiration from, and any assumptions that I have made that have projected the particular allure onto The Greatest Story Ever Told that I find so appealing. With that preamble out of the way, let’s start actually talking about the music.
The Lawrence Arms Go To The Circus
The Greatest Story Ever Told is a concept album, a term that I drop like it’s a hot brick, that does not have much to do with the thematic or lyrical quality of the record, but has a lot to do with its presentation. When your fresh pressing of The Greatest Story Ever Told arrives in the mail, you see the album cover presented like an advertisement for a circus. The travelling circus in question is presented by The Lawrence Arms, made up of Gordon Shumway, a friendly alien that lives with a suburban American family in the 90s, Ferdinand Magellan, a sixteenth century Portuguese explorer who was first to circumnavigate the globe, and Ivan Nikolayevich, a young poet from the classic work of Russian literature The Master and Margarita. Pictured are three grizzled Great-War era heroic figures, none of whom are the men that The Lawrence Arms take their pseudonyms from. Decorated around the sides of the poster are scenes from the anticipated travelling show, depicting marching elephants, wild trapeze artists, and dancing horses among other things. The name of this ostentatiously presented travelling show? Shumway, Magellan, and Nikolayevich have the gaul to promise it will be The Greatest Story Ever Told. The Lawrence Arms’ record label owner, (and famous punk musician in his own right) Fat Mike, was not a fan of the schtick when he first saw it (and, to my knowledge, still isn’t) but allowed the trio to do what they wanted to do.
I went out and purchased a physical copy of The Greatest Story Ever Told to finally get my hands on the actual record, and, more importantly, the oh-so-precious liner notes. My findings were just as fruitful as I had hoped. The ambiance is equal parts fantastic circus and equal parts three punk musicians joking and poking fun at their friends and fans. They list themselves (and by themselves I mean Gordon Shumway, Ivan Nikolayevich, and Ferdinand Magellan) as playing the Vibraslap, Harp and Lyre, and Bassoon respectively. The only time the actual human beings behind The Greatest Story Ever Told are revealed can be found under the “Additional Musicians” section which has a lot going on in it, and reads as following: “Rob Kellenberger, Christopher McCaughan, John Gater, Sanavin Hennessy, Bronson Finehot, Matthew Allison, Brendan Kelly, Chester A. Arthur, Mark Lynn Baker, Ezra Pound, Pete Anna, Ian Siering.”
Allow me to briefly explain every name on this list. Rob Kellenberger is a percussionist that played with drummer Neil Hennessy in the band Colossal and is an actual additional musician. Christopher McCaughan is only an additional musician in the sense that he is the alter ego of Ivan Nikolayevich, being The Lawrence Arms’s own guitarist and vocalist. John Gater is a British archaeological geophysicist, and his inclusion as an additional musician is pure nonsense. Sanavin Hennesy is a not so subtle allusion to the band’s actual drummer, Neil Hennessy, and the alter ego of Gordon Shumway. From what I could dig up, the name Bronson Finehot has never been possessed by anyone of note, and is more nonsense. Matthew Allison produced and mixed the record, but wasn’t really a musician. His inclusion in the additional musician category can be interpreted either as a way of giving thanks for his instrumental part in the production of the record, or as a little bit of piss taking. I think it’s some of both categories. Brendan Kelly is The Lawrence Arms’s actual bassist and vocalist, and the altar ego of Ferdinand Magellan. Chester A. Arthur was the twenty-first President of the United States, most famous for succeeding the assassinated president James Garfield. His inclusion is somewhat of an untruth. Mark Lynn Baker is another nonsense name, but Mark Linn-Baker is an actor and director most famous for his portrayal of Benjy Stone in My Favourite Year. He was not an additional musician in The Greatest Story Ever Told. Ezra Pound was the famed expatriate American poet and critic, whose inclusion in the additional musician section is likely a way of citing him as inspiration for the album, but he was not in fact an actual musician featured in The Greatest Story Ever Told. Pete Anna is a Chicago-based musician most famous for playing trumpet in the band Slapstick alongside Brendan Kelly, and is an actual additional musician. Finally, we have Ian Siering, another very slight misspelling of a famous person’s name. Ian Ziering is an American actor most famous for his role as Steve Sanders in Beverly Hills.
So what does this very confusing and convoluted additional musician section mean? We have the three actual band members cited as additional musicians, keeping up with the facade that Gordon Shumway, Ferdinand Magellan, and Ivan Nikolayevich are the ones actually putting on the show, yet we have evidence that this is in fact not a circus production, but an album. Of course, The Greatest Story Ever Told is an album, and at some point we have to get to the music. The Lawrence Arms ease us into this by slowly sprinkling in themselves into the album. They simultaneously show the absurdity of both the travelling circus that they are emulating, and the fact that they are emulating it in the form of a punk rock album by putting in completely fictitious persons and famous people right alongside real additional musicians.
The additional musicians section is also the last thing on The Greatest Story Ever Told before the lyric sheets, so that means The Lawrence Arms are ready for us to begin to actually listen to the album itself!
“Introduction (The Ramblin’ Boys Of Pleasure Sing The Hobo Clown Chorus)”Or: The Lawrence Arms Immediately Shatter The Illusion
With the scene set for an exciting and adventurous night out at the circus, our listener eagerly dawns their listening medium of choice, and dives into the record, expecting a fanciful atmosphere of merriment and wonder. Then, they are greeted with this:
I’m a clown
only here to entertain
All the clowns
only here to entertain
All the clowns
only here to entertain
Brendan Kelly groggily coughs to clear his throat before launching into his raspy chorus. Chris McCaughan strums up on the acoustic guitar, and a beer can can be heard opening as Chris and Neil join in on the vocal part. The listener thinks, “what the hell is going on?” After all the gaudy advertising and showmanship, the first taste of the album we get is intentionally low production quality, off-key singing, and a short, melancholic chorus. What is the song about, anyway? My interpretation is that The Lawrence Arms are doing their own version of an interpretive dance that many artists find themselves performing. They even expand upon this on another one of their songs, “Intransit,”which wasn’t released until their compilation album Cocktails & Dreams in 2005. The struggle that The Lawrence Arms find themselves going through is that they put so much of themselves out through their art, and then nobody takes the time to appreciate it, wanting simply to be entertained by the artist, or, put more dismally, clowns. A more well-known example of this happening in a song is “Hey Ya!” by Outkast.
The thing is, the listener doesn’t have time to consider the implication of observing or listening to the art but not appreciating or interpreting the art for all that it is and contains, because the introduction is only twenty-seven seconds long. They barely have time for the shock due to the unexpected direction of the chorus to take in before The Lawrence Arms begin their first proper song.
“The Raw and Searing Flesh” Or: Chris Lures Us In And The Concept Expands
Chris McCaughan and Brendan Kelly are two of the best songwriters in the world. I truly believe that. In the entire collectivity that is the delicate and complicated process of combining literary skills together with a deep understanding of the vast and complex plane of music theory, Chris and Brendan are both masters at their craft. What truly makes them special, however, is when they are together. They still write their own individual songs, but the juxtaposition of their separate skills is what really makes The Lawrence Arms my favorite band, and The Greatest Story Ever Told my favorite album in particular. As talented lifelong musicians, The Lawrence Arms is not the only act either songwriter has on their resume, but I find that all of their solo acts and side projects are lacking in the simple fact that they are missing their other half. The Lawrence Arms’ drummer, Neil Hennessy, the oft-unmentioned (at least by me, fans definitely talk a lot about him due to his friendly demeanor, impeccable technique, and good looks) third member of the band, always seems to tag along with either of his compatriots in their various misadventures, being the percussionist for Brendan’s projects The Falcon as well as Brendan Kelly and The Wandering Birds and Chris’s Sundowner.
First up on the docket to showcase his songwriting chops on The Greatest Story Ever Told (not counting the intro, which I believe was written by Brendan) is Chris, the master of songs of elegiac nostalgia. “The Raw And Searing Flesh” is a bittersweet song about lost love, and Chris has the emotions of regret and wistfulness down to a science, at least in regards to how they can be expressed, felt, and discussed.
I never want to see you in the raw and searing flesh.
I don’t ever want to hear you singing softly to the dead.
I never want to feel your skin running warm along my side.
I don’t ever want to sink that way again. It would be easier to die.
Im tending the pyres of my frustration.
Burning leaves on on buried dreams.
Kneeling in to rake the ashes.
I’m embering. You’re smoldered out.
My hands are free. My lungs are proud.
Your forgiveness is a fading fiction.
These flames have never burned so high.
I won’t be staring in your eyes.
I’m trying hard not to remember.
The way the smoke drifted through the air.
We’ll all be dead come November.
Four months out of every year.
I won’t be staring in your eyes.
“Oh,” our listener mutters out, “the other guy is like that, too.” What happened to the circus?! Aside from a picture of a wildebeest goring an African tribesman (which doesn’t really have that much to do with the circus either, but I guess it keeps in line with the 1800s colonial aesthetic) on the lyric sheet, “The Raw and Searing Flesh” has nothing to do with the circus at all. Luckily, this theme will persist through the album, fret not that The Lawrence Arms abandon it after one song. They just momentarily put it on hold.
Wait a minute wait a minute. Stop the presses. I was wrong. “The Raw and Searing Flesh” has a very obvious connection to the album’s concept that I can’t believe I missed, and I was lucky to have noticed before I published this article. I think it appropriate not to go back and edit over my mistake, because it shows the burgeoning complexity that The Greatest Story Ever Told possesses, and how many little details there are going on, so much so that even someone attempting to closely study the album can miss something fairly obvious. When I set out to write about The Greatest Story Ever Told, this small detail was one of the things that linked everything together in such an appealing and subtle way such that it gave me enough intrigue to dive in and explore the album to the extent that I am doing right now, and share my discoveries with the world. What is this “thing” that I have been so vaguely dancing around? The ringmaster. I nearly forgot about the ringmaster because he isn’t mentioned in any of the liner notes, not on any wikipedia page, not on any fan site; you have to actually listen to the song to notice him. He is very clearly there when you listen to the song. After the second “to die,” Chris falls away and there is an interlude where the ringmaster comes out over megaphone, saying the following: “[unintelligible] whole wide world. This is the time in the place. [unintelligible] On with the show!” Half of his speech is drowned out by both Brendan’s bass and, more importantly to the aesthetic of the album, the cheering of the crowd. This will very important when we begin to talk about the song “On With The Show” in which Brendan expresses his discontent for the audience, and his sense of dehumanization at their behest. We will go into this in greater detail in a few minutes.
What we establish in “The Raw and Searing Flesh” is the dichotomy between Chris and Brendan. To put it in simple terms, Brendan is mad and Chris is sad. They both touch on similar themes throughout the album, but if we distill their respective songwriting patterns down to three letter words that rhyme, that is what we get. Chris carries through his songwriting a profound feeling of regret. In describing the experience of love, he wishes that it never occurred in the first place, declaring it “easier to die” because of the pain he felt upon its loss. In “the raw and searing flesh” we have a lot of imagery associated with fire. “ashes, pyres, burning, embering, smoldered flames, smoke.” Remember fire in regards to Chris’s songwriting. It will come back, and it will be important later. Fire is associated with destruction and death, and here Chris is using it to liken the loss of his his love (as in the emotion, not his lover, key distinction) as a part of himself dying in the process.
“On With The Show” Or: Brendan Tells Us The Answer In The First Ten Minutes
As we move on to track number three we switch the mic over to Brendan and we quickly establish a simple alternation between him and Chris, an alternation that The Lawrence Arms had never prior or since replicated that I always have found wistfully looking back on as the perfect balance. Sometimes, the simplest of schemas can be the best-fitting. This is definitely the case in The Greatest Story Ever Told, where we switch back and forth between Chris’s melancholy and Brendan’s mania. “On With The Show” is fast, angry, and takes no prisoners.
What did you scream into your telephone, telephone?
What did you scream into your telephone, telephone?
I’m a shit stain slave with a grind of my own.
I work day and night, less respect than a juggalo.
I’m prying on the outside and frozen in the center.
I’m telling you to watch out for my temper.
‘Cause you won’t like me when I’m angry.
You’ll see banners everywhere.
The street where I’m from in the town where I live
Is now barely even there.
I haven’t had fun in what seems like years.
I had a thumbs up for you, but it was caught in the gears.
These tears are just onion eyes, this heart is just broken.
This body is a break room where the burnouts are smoking.
I’m a clown, I’m just here to entertain.
Tear me up and stuff me down the drain.
Brendan complicates the circus aesthetic quite a bit here. We have an obvious reference to the album’s concept in the title. We have the repetition of the clown chorus’ verse in the penultimate line of the song, and, as we will later find out, when the clown chorus makes their reappearance they will borrow from this song. The purpose bizarre clown chorus also becomes more clear after “On With The Show.” The circus aesthetic is a front to gather a captive audience, and an opportunity to really let them have it. At the same time, we have very obvious references to contemporary life that ground the song as decidedly made in 2003, and not the mid to late 1800s. Brendan references juggalos. For a definition of this interesting member of society, I’ll use his own. “Juggalo -A fan of the (ahem) band, Insane Clown Posse often refer to his/her (almost always him) self as a ‘Juggalo.’ They paint their faces, spray soda on each other, and respect the music of ICP and consequently get very little respect themselves” (Footnote 2. On With The Show.) He also references pop culture with the line “you won’t like me when I’m angry” alluding to The Incredible Hulk (which, by the way, is an amazing line, when followed up with “You’ll see banners everywhere.” The Hulk’s name is Bruce Banner. Brendan is a master of wordplay of this sort.) The song also opens with an obvious dating invention of the telephone, which, while it did exist during the time of the circus, was quite different then and the telephone that Brendan is talking about is clearly of the modern variety.
So, The Greatest Story Ever Told begins to take shape. It isn’t an actual travelling circus in the 1800s, but a production of a travelling circus in the 1800s. The Lawrence Arms are using this aesthetic to their advantage and are able to fuel their songwriting. Brendan is able to use the image of circus clowns to talk about the disgust he feels at performing for the sake of people’s enjoyment, and how that makes him feel used. The title of the song, “On With The Show,” takes on a much more tongue-in-cheek air to it when one realizes this. The circus has started and the performers are not there for the audience, they are there to alienate them. The song is a big middle finger towards those who are there to see the circus production, waiting for the clowns to make a fool of themselves on stage, Brendan garnering equal respect as a juggalo. An important caveat here to make is that I don’t think Brendan is alienating his fans. The fans of The Lawrence Arms are not those that would go to the circus, that expect them to perform as freaks. The fans of The Lawrence Arms buy the record and analyze it, and understand all that they are saying. The people that Brendan are calling out are those that brazenly treat performers with little regard for their craft; not viewing them as people, but only as an object, not even giving their art the respect that it deserves.
“Drunk Mouth Kitchen Smile” Or: Chris’s Love Life Is A Circus
This is an interesting one. This song used to be by far and a way my least favorite song on The Greatest Story Ever Told, but it really has grown on me. It has really impressive lyricism, it furthers the concept in a nice and subtle way, and the liner notes show how much thought went into the song’s creation. An interesting disclaimer before I continue, because it is semi-pertinent to this song: I am punctuating the lyrics as The Lawrence Arms do in their lyric sheets, which is not grammatically correct, ending every line in a full stop, but if that’s the way they do it, that’s how I’m going to do it. Here it is:
This is a shy and quiet morning.
The sleeping dogs awoke last night.
The thunder scares them stiff eyed.
Exorcise your exorcisms.
Anchor down. Raise the sail.
Autumn night stay soft and cool.
Come morning light I’ll be gone.
Spectators are tired of watching.
They’re filling out the big top doors.
I’m buried in the smell of circus.
Those dark clouds are rolling in.
Drunken mouth. Kitchen smile.
Please summon me softly to sleep.
We never talk. We only speak.
Today I’ve seen a dragon on the ripped up worn out arm rest.
Stay back this skin is laced with sticks of dynamite.
I’ll be burned out like a shooting star.
A thousand pretty lights assail these sinking feelings.
I should be on trial for everything I haven’t done.
More elegiac regret! There isn’t much nostalgia in this song, with the entirety of it carrying a tone of lament, but Chris very much so continues with the theme of him talking about deeply personal experiences, and using colorful metaphors as he does it. The song seems to be about a conflicted, unhappy relationship and about how Chris deals with the aftermath. The drunken mouth kitchen smile is the inciting incident, and the rest of the song is dealing with the aftereffects. We have the obvious allusion to the album’s concept in the feeling of spectators voyeuristically peering into his unhappiness, and eventually losing interest, which is not so subtly juxtaposed with the smell of circus incase you missed it. The end of the song is an explosion (pun most certainly intended) of metaphors conceived from Laozi and Kafka (or so Chris claims, one of his liner notes is most certainly him messing with his fans in which he claims Laozi saw a dragon in an armchair, and the other explains how Laozi was believed to be conceived from a shooting star, which is true.) He claims the last line is a “pretentious foray into existentialism” (Footnote 4 Drunkmouth Kitchensmile.) Ever-modest, I think Chris’s obfuscation of his own genius in his footnotes is him poking fun at how much thought and effort went into this song, downplaying how effective his metaphors are at explaining the hurt, frustration, and guilt he experiences in this relationship.
Clocking in at over 4000 words, I think this is a good place to end part 1. I always loped these first three songs (and the intro) into a section I so tactfully refer to as “the beginning of the album,” so I think this is as good a place as any to finally show that this project (which has been in production for well over two weeks) actually is happening.