Dennis Flemion sounds irritable and flabbergasted for close to two hours -- a marathon by interview standards, especially since the founder of the Frogs prefers to keep to himself.
"Look, Prince never did interviews," Flemion says flatly. "I don't want to talk to anybody. I'm not getting anything, so I'm not gonna give anything back. I'm dumbfounded when I see others of lesser talent making it. I'm thinking God's asleep. Fucking dead asleep! He's gotta be in a coma at this point, with the crap that's succeeding. An absolute coma! This must be some joke. We keep saying all the time we're waiting for the punchline, but there is none!"
A beleaguered indie-rock veteran at 47, Flemion has plenty to get off his chest -- especially when it comes to the Frogs' overall legacy, which in its present state remains somewhere between legendary and an afterthought. Paying for the long distance call himself to avoid giving out his home number, the unsung hero of the home taper's underground launches into his own cultural state of the union address, offering plenty of scathing topical insights along the way: the French ("Let me have those assholes; I'm ready"), hip-hop ("The bragging thing should be outlawed -- especially for women"), pedophile priests ("They're bastards; they'll get theirs") and last February's Great White tragedy ("They deserve what they got. The crowd, too -- cheering with the fire, like it was part of the act.")
With Little Fyodor and Babushka
and Magic Cyclops
9 p.m. Tuesday, May 13
Climax Lounge, 2217 Welton Street
Still, Flemion recalls happier days.
"I did a show one time," he says. "'Cause they were such bastards, I did the first song 'Fuck Off,' you know? I did it five times in a row. It was beautiful. Like, 'Check this out, assholes. Want me to do it again?'" If not for the confrontational lyrics, the softly strummed melody of the otherwise soothing song might pass for a lullaby: "For all those who say/'Make me happy/Please me/Entertain me'/ I've only this to say/'Fuck off/Get out of my life/Fuck off/Get out of my sight/ 'Cause I don't need your BS tonight.'"
It wasn't the last time that Flemion would test the patience of an angry mob.
"The most famous show was in Chicago, where 5,000 people flipped me off," Flemion recalls. "That's one of my proudest moments. I wish I had a picture of that, 'cause it just looked righteous. A sea of arms up in the air, flipping me off. And they meant it!
"It sounds funny, but I'm thinking, 'I'm doing the right thing,'" he says. "I'm opening with 'Queen Boys' off It's Only Right and Natural, and I've got the pink sailor suit on, which has probably thrown them for a loop. And I'm in dark face, with a blond wig that's dyed pink, you know? And the opening lyrics are 'Start by kissing my ass/I'll start by rubbing your balls.' And I'm thinking, 'They're gonna go for this, you know? This is what they want.' And I get done with the first chorus, and there was a rain of boos. The whole place!
"I wasn't prepared for it," Flemion continues, laughing. "I mean, standing up to 5,000 people against you? I was dumbfounded. I was like, 'Why don't they like what I'm doing here?' And I jumped on them, like, 'What the hell?' Because they didn't know the journey I took to get to that point."
Hardly a tale by Horatio Alger, the Frogs' journey began in their parents' basement in Milwaukee during the dark hours of the Nixon administration. Flemion and Jimmy, his younger brother by five years, discovered mainstream FM radio, took up drums and guitar, respectively, and proceeded to knock out songs by the boatload.
"I started in 1970 -- not whole hog, but I had the dream since then," Flemion says. "I was a recording artist myself before being a singer-songwriter. Much in the same mold as James Taylor or whoever. Carly Simon. Todd Rundgren. Elton John. They aren't necessarily my heroes, but these are the people I wanted to emulate.
"To me, where it was really going on was like in the '60s in Greenwich Village with Dylan," Flemion continues. "Or in the late '50s in San Francisco with people like Lenny Bruce doing his comedy thing."
Nearly three decades into the game, the Flemion brothers have intermittently issued six full-length albums among an enormous backlog of funny, unreleased material and "made-up songs" available through mail order. (See www.thefrogs.net.) The band's first self-titled, self-released effort, in 1988, found them singing quirky, orchestrated, electric pop in the vein of Robyn Hitchcock. The tunes covered everything from deposed kings and suicidal gypsy girls to Persian cats and dry humping.
"I shopped it around to people at Electra or whoever, because we'd done it in a 'professional studio,'" Flemion says. "But they weren't interested. Right and Natural got put out a year later inadvertently, 'cause my friend happened to send a copy to Homestead. I didn't even offer it to them."
Praising homo-erotica with a crass, undying love for all of God's creatures (especially the ones that were male, sweaty, lean-muscled, four-legged or in the priesthood), the Frogs introduced something of a faux liberation manifesto with Right and Natural. Upon issuing their lo-fi underground classic, the pair even declared themselves gay supremacists. In the shadow of a growing AIDS epidemic, songs like "Hot Cock Annie" and "Sailors Board Me Now" blindsided political correctness by celebrating wild orgies in drug-blissed abandon. With a nod to Bowie's Hunky Dory and a tip of the hat to Bob Crane, the release spawned several glitzy stage tours, complete with pyrotechnics and costume changes -- including Jimmy's famed six-foot-wide sequined bat wings.
"We were gonna do a followup to it called The Gay Bible," Flemion says, "but we got dropped by the label. The guy who signed us [Gerald Cosloy] was fired, and we were left holding the bag. I didn't have any more connections in the quote-unquote biz. All these other projects fell through over those years -- just over and over. And then we did the black album right after it anyway."
Upping the conceptual ante, the Frogs turned their attention from folksy rough trade to skewering ethnic tension with 1991's Racially Yours. At 25 tracks, the controversial long player featured somber songs like "My Slave," "Whitefully Dead," "Dark Meat 4 Sale" and "Two Blacks Don't Make a White." Too contentious even for indie labels to handle (Four Alarm Records finally took the plunge in 2000), the album inspired several memorable live performances -- with Dennis in blackface, Jimmy in whiteface -- designed to shock members of both polarized tribes.
"I don't think we're that left of center, honestly," Flemion concedes. "I've always tried to make this stuff commercial. I try to think about what was controversial in another decade -- 'cause nothing today really measures up to stuff like Midnight Cowboy, which got an X rating because it dealt with homosexual themes. But it's really tame. Clockwork Orange is still over the top.
"I don't think I really need to explain what the Frogs do," Flemion continues. "It's like that scene in Reservoir Dogs where they cut the ear off. If you have to actually sit down and explain it, then why is that scene even gonna be in the movie?"
Shock value aside, then, what exactly are the Frogs? Misunderstood alternative cult icons? Avant-novelty Renaissance minstrels? Or just another radical, potty-mouthed, gay-power, folk-leaning, electric Al Jolson tribute band?
"There's no category," Flemion says. "Critics say, 'Oh, it's like a Zappa thing,' which it's not, 'cause that guy could never do anything serious. He was always more parody, and that's not what we're about. And they always lump us in along with Tenacious D or whatever. If fuckin' people like Jack Black can make it...please. This guy's a success, but I'm not?
"I thought it would catch on," Flemion continues, "the same way eventually John Waters got a foot in the door. I always expected to be in this upper tier. Silly me. If we had toured in the early days extensively, we'd have been like the Replacements and died. There was no money to be made. We would've lost money. There was one point when we were gonna go to New York. Instead we stayed home and created this body of work."
Despite their marketplace failures, the Frogs spent most of the '90s recording feverishly. Rumored to be housebound, dying lovers, they earned plenty of high-profile admirers along the way. Beck sampled Jimmy singing "That was a good drum break" -- the unlikely opening line from Right and Natural's "I Don't Care If U Disrespect Me (Just So You Love Me)" -- for Odelay's smash hit "Where It's At." Pearl Jam's single "Immortality" boasts a B-side cover version of Vedder and company's "Rearviewmirror" by the Frogs. Calling himself Johnny Goat, Billy Corgan produced the band's glossy 1999 EP Starjob, as well as 2001's bittersweet Hopscotch Lollipop Sunday Surprise; both were released on Scratchie Records.
"I never wanted to be adjunct to somebody's career like with Pearl Jam or opening for the Pumpkins," Flemion concedes. "I don't want to keep falling back on their word. It's such an insult to this band. If what was offered to Billy Corgan had been offered to me when I was 25, I would've taken it and played the game. But they never offered me a million dollars. And we weren't that unapproachable. I lay it at my feet, because we never had a manager. I never trusted them. I read all the horror stories and thought, 'Well, we can get by without one.'
"Maybe we pulled back even more and just went into ourselves," Flemion continues. "That's when we created My Daughter the Broad. 'Cause I just didn't give a damn anymore. We were just gonna do what we wanted then."
Gleefully vulgar and willfully absurd, Broad was released on Matador in 1996, though much of it came from a burst of creativity between 1986 and 1987; the album captures the intimacy of spontaneous low-budget home recording like no other official Frogs release (except maybe 1999's Bananimals). You'd need a hard heart to keep a straight face during diatribes against the Jerry Lewis telethon, lesbian folksinger "Gwendlyn Macrae," dead goats and nursing-home neglect. During the surreal "April Fools," the elder Flemion outlines a sex-change operation gone horribly wrong: "Where his belly button once stood/Now stood a cock with a mouth at the end that ate the food/Well, what a peculiar guest he was/At summer swimming parties."
"You can only be primitive and succeed so far," Flemion allows. "We have all these different angles and a range which nobody really knows about, because they only know about the few releases that we have."
Despite possessing a backlog of material to rival those of Jad Fair, Daniel Johnston, Tall Dwarves or Ween, the Frogs at least have one claim to fame that nobody will ever share.
"One of the things I'm most proud of is that when [Kurt Cobain] came out of his coma after that overdose the first time in Italy, the first thing he asked for was his Walkman and his Frogs tapes," Flemion says. "I'm most proud of that: that he had to have his Frogs fix -- a made-up batch, I guess. He was into us big time."
Cobain was famously fond of the phrase "God is gay" -- the title of a Frogs tune from the late '80s involving Flemion's vision of Jesus in a park, holding hands with an angel named Lark McGee.
"I said that before Kurt, and then I saw Kurt take credit," Flemion explains. "I'm sure I wasn't the first to ever say it. And it got spray-painted around Seattle or Portland or whatever, just to piss people off.
"I only met him once," Flemion continues. "I wanted to tour Europe with them, but they took the Raincoats instead. Had he taken us, he'd have been alive. That's what I'm sayin'. I'll never get over that one."
Accolades from grunge messiahs never hurt, but where exactly do they leave someone like Flemion in a dog-eat-frog world?
"TLC sells ten million records and they're bankrupt?" Flemion fumes. "How can that be? Because there are major motherfuckers in the music industry. Total sharks. These absolute bottom feeders are dictating to me what I can create. And at the end of the day, I'm going home and they're going to the mansion."
"Lisa Marie's third live show was on Letterman," Flemion continues on a roll. "She's never had to pay her dues in the club. Open Rolling Stone, and everyone's patting each other on the back. It's all bought and paid for, and nobody gives a shit, 'cause they're all on the payroll somewhere. Where's the ethics? Where's the morals? Where's anything?
"Even when you make it, you're on a damn pedestal and they're gonna tear your ass down. I have news for you: Just let me go to the top. I'll take it. I'm not gonna whine like these other jerks. They all whine when they're up there. I'll show you what being on the bottom is like.
"Look at Madonna. She's gonna play dress-up and makeup in the mirror the same way Prince did, because the guy's got so much time on his hands, he's gotta carve SLAVE into the side of his face, you know? So we get it. In a hundred years, is anyone gonna care what the sales were?"
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Settling down, Flemion mentions plans for an upcoming Frogs boxed set -- though no definite release date or label has been decided upon -- as well as a new, unfinished record described as having a lot of space and sorrow in it, à la Neil Young.
"That's what I was going for," Flemion says. "I was trying to make somebody cry. 'Cause there's not a damn song on the radio I can hear now. They kind of censored all the sadness out of it. Everything is about the good times, you know. And that's not reality."
With night approaching, Flemion turns his attention to the one part-time evening job he holds to supplement his rock-and-roll lifestyle: a paper route. It's ironic, given his mistrust of the media.
"If I had it to do again, I guess I probably wouldn't have," he says. "I'd probably just stay in my room with my recording. I'm not playing the game. You can only whore out for so long. Unless you're handing it to me on a platter, fuck off. I don't want to know. I don't even want to hear that crap. It makes me want to hurt you."