Pop quiz, hot shot: you’re trapped in rural Ontario in the middle of winter. The only tools you have at your disposal are a guitar and a computer. What do you do? What do you do? If you’re Jefferson Pitcher, the answer to that question is to write loving acoustic tributes to each of the 43 US Presidents and blog about it. If you’re anybody else, I suppose you’d sell the guitar on eBay and use the extra cash to buy a one-way ticket to Bermuda. Not that I’m knocking Canada in February. As we all know, hypothermia builds character.
Now we have the results of Pitcher’s efforts, released under the name Of Great and Mortal Men and officially titled 43 Songs for 43 U.S. Presidencies. Jeff had a little help with this monumental undertaking from musician buddies Matthew Gerken and Christian Kiefer. The trio invited a few special guests to participate in this giant governmental geek-out, including but not limited to Smog’s Bill Callahan, Low’s Alan Sparhawk, Sufjan Stevens pal Marla Hansen, and Cake’s Vince DiFiore. It would have really been something had Pitcher and his pals managed to actually get a few former Presidents themselves on this son of a bitch. I hear George Bush Sr. plays a mean mouth harp.
Of Great and Mortal Men wants you to believe every single President is worthy of some overwrought ballad, but that just isn’t true. Warren G. Harding, who just sat around while the Teapot Dome scandal erupted around him and then died of a juicy heart attack, does not deserve a stirring musical tribute. Lyndon Johnson may have accomplished a great deal for civil rights, but he also held cabinet meetings in his jockey shorts and had trouble naming dogs. I refuse to feel the inner turmoil of a man who settled on “Him” and “Her” for his two pet beagles. How exciting could any song about Rutherford Hayes ever be? The most interesting thing to happen during his Presidency was the slight expansion of his fanciful beard. The solo in his number (the appropriately named “Beard of God”) is pretty toasty, though.
A handful of these dreamy, drifty songs seem like they’d make the perfect soundtrack to some very non-Presidential activities. Chester A. Arthur’s tune, “The Epitome of Dignity”, sounds almost as drugged out as your average Sonic Youth b-side (I wonder if the 21st President ever swatted a bong while he was drawing up our nation’s first Federal immigration laws?). The Gerald Ford-themed “Now You See It, Now You Don’t See It” is a sexy Kenny Loggins-type yacht rock cut complete with wocka-wocka porno guitar. The last thing I ever wanted to picture was Gerry Ford slowly unbuttoning his shirt in a sleazy motel room with a sly, drunken grin painted on his face. Thanks, Of Great and Mortal Men. You’ve officially impeached my sex drive.
In the end, the main problem with Jeff Pitcher and pals’ expansive tribute to the Most Powerful Men in the Free World is lack of stylistic diversity. Every song is more or less a somber exercise in unplugged mope rock, peppered with silly metaphors or unnecessarily dramatic imagery. I would also like to point out that William McKinley gets completely short-changed, as his song is told from the perspective of his assassin, Leon Czolgosz. If they did this with Lincoln or Kennedy, people would be up in arms. McKinley, though — nobody cares about the schmuck who preceded Teddy Roosevelt. He only annexed Hawaii, the Philippines, and Guam. The man gave us Guam, for God sakes, and all he gets in return is a chilling musical reminder that he was felled by a Polish anarchist at the World’s Fair.
Fear not, McKinley enthusiasts. I’m currently working on a Broadway musical dedicated to our Republican hero entitled Big Willie Style. I’m hoping to get John Hurt for the lead. Fingers crossed!