Alternate Universe: The Physics of the Shaggs

Listening to The Shaggs is a litmus test for a certain type of music lover. Either you found the song “My Pal Foot Foot” mostly unlistenable or it blew your mind. What you heard was three home-schooled sisters from rural New Hampshire, who were given instruments by their father and made to practice together for hours every day.

Austin Wiggin could just as easily have forced his daughters (Dot, Helen, Betty and later, Rachel) to take piano lessons, as so many parents do, by hiring a trained music teacher to instill in the girls a disciplined reverence for conventional musical forms. But he did not. He knew next to nothing about music himself; the driving force behind his ambition for the girls stemmed from a palm reading given to him by his mother that said, among other things, that his daughters would play in a band.

Left mostly to their own devices to fulfill their grandmother’s prophecy, the girls did their best to write lyrics and chord changes and drum parts. “Unaffected by outside influences” was a phrase their father repeated in his liner notes for Philosophy of the World, and the statement mostly holds true, despite the fact that Dot was a big fan of Herman’s Hermits. The music made by The Shaggs sounds like it came from some lost indigenous culture, with its own concept of rhythm and its own notions of acceptable tuning and songwriting. In their isolated universe, The Shaggs created their own laws of musical physics.

The Shaggs were essentially terrible. But what set them apart from hundreds of other terrible bands is that they kept practicing relentlessly and were never told that what they were doing was terrible. For lovers of the avant garde, The Shaggs are paragons of musical innocence. To anyone compelled to seek out new musical frontiers, to distrust genre labels, or to defy all boundaries, The Shaggs represent a tantalizing set of footprints in the sand; the footprints of a species in a phylum by themselves. Their music offers an escape to the place before rules were written, and a taste of an entire alternate universe of music. If the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is true, then it’s easy enough to imagine a world exactly like ours but where The Beatles didn’t record “Something,” or a world where Brian Jones is still alive and playing with the Stones, but consider how many more universes might exist where all of pop music sounds like The Shaggs?

The band gave up playing in the mid-’70s when their father died. While their instruments gathered dust, their music nonetheless kept going. It slowly crept its way into the ears of the stranger strains of the music listening public: the Dr. Demento fans, the outsider artists, the Frank Zappa/Captain Beefheart set, the Alan Lomax folk music aficionados, the free jazz cats, and every other micro-subset of musical adventurer dedicated to circumventing audio normalcy. A small but dedicated fanbase emerged. To them, The Shaggs and their music naturally became objects of intense fascination and speculation.

If rock stars are often deified by their adoring throngs, then it’s not difficult to imagine that the Wiggin sisters are seen by a small cadre of weird-music worshippers as something like mythical creatures. To be the sole proprietors of their own universe of sound, The Shaggs must seem like unicorns to their fans.

For decades, little was known about their personal lives until a 1999 piece in The New Yorker shed some light on the sisters’ humanity. As it turns out, they are neither aliens nor avant garde masterminds. They’re just some regular New Hampshire ladies who had a peculiar upbringing. For the most part, they fail the litmus test of their own recording, as Betty used the word “horrible” in the New Yorker piece to describe their music. This must have come as a severe disappointment to their fans, despite the prospect of the band reuniting that same year to play four songs opening for NRBQ (their biggest champions, NRBQ helped to re-release Philosophy of the World in 1980).

On Friday, April 13th, 2012, Shaggs fans in New York City were given the opportunity to meet the objects of their adoration face to face, as a tribute show was arranged at Brooklyn’s Bell House by devoted Shaggs fan Jesse Krakow. Boasting a lineup of avant garde/experimental heavyweights Elliott Sharp, Gary Lucas, and Henry Kaiser (who attended via video) among many others, the show featured reverent covers of the Shaggs’ material in all their arrhythmic, semi-tonal splendor as well as a Q&A with Dot, Betty and Rachel (Helen died in 2006).

Conceived as a benefit for the Fremont, New Hampshire Town Hall Historical Society, the show was a celebration of The Shaggs’ music but it also represented something of a pulling-of-the-curtain on these mythic figures. To be a devoted Shaggs fan, to pore over their songs and to attempt to replicate their consistently inconsistent sense of rhythm and close-enough tunings, to puzzle out the illogic of their polyrhythmic conception, naturally invites a certain amount of imaginative hero worship. But how strange must it be to find out that your heroes don’t even realize the magnitude of their accomplishments? Is it disappointing to discover the loss of their rare artistic innocence, or was that loss inevitable?

Based on their answers at the Q&A, the sisters appeared not quite sure what to make of their cult following, but they were delighted to be appreciated for their years of labor. They probably thought the idea of purposefully replicating terrible music is a little weird.

Maybe they’re right. But there is something uncanny to the fact that so many people were drawn to their music independently of one another, and independent of conventional notions of musical quality. This is not music that gets liked because of socio-economic factors, airplay, good looks, theatrics or any of the other myriad reasons people like the music they like. There’s a mystical quality at work here that evades investigation.

The show’s finale was a group rendition by all the show’s participants of “My Pal Foot Foot”, the fourth cut on Philosophy of the World. Somehow, across the miles, lost in an inscrutable universe devoid of any criteria for what defines excellence, Shaggs fans everywhere seemed to all agree that this is the group’s best song; like particles engaged in quantum entanglement, fans of

The Shaggs around the world exist in a shared state. The band’s music opened a door for these particular individuals to another dimension where the laws of physics weren’t clearly understood, but were, like the laws of gravitation, immediately obvious. In the end, it mattered little that the ones who cracked open the door weren’t aware of what they’d done.

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