by Lee Widener
For the second edition of Bizarro Music I’m going to talk about Dot Wiggin. But who is Dot Wiggin? You know who she is, you just don’t know you know.
Yes, THAT Dot Wiggin- 1/3 of the Shaggs. Why am I singling her out? We’ll get to that in a bit. First, some background to get everyone up to speed.
The Shaggs released what is probably the most famous bad record in the history of recorded music. Foisted on the public in 1969, Philosophy of the World is spectacularly bad. It’s bad in ways other bad records can only dream of.
The Shaggs were three sisters- Dot, Helen and Betty Wiggin. The formation of the band was the result of a prophesy by their paternal grandmother. She fancied herself a psychic and in a palm reading session for her son Austin she fortold three things. Her son would marry a strawberry blond, he would have two sons after she died, and he would have three daughters that would form a rock band. The first two prophesies came true, so Austin Wiggin set about making sure the last one did too.
He pulled the girls out of high school in their sleepy New Hampshire town of Fremont, enrolled them in a mail order correspondence course, and signed them up for music lessons. He didn’t ask them if they wanted to play music. It was the prophesy, so it was their destiny. For a few years this was their life: home schooling for few hours a day, and then practice music. They also did calisthenics every day. And then more practicing music.
They took lessons for only a year, and then were left to figure out the mechanics of playing in a band by themselves. Their father had no talent for music. They had no social life. They were not allowed to date until they were 18. One night a week the entire family would go grocery shopping together. That was their life. Practice music, do calisthenics, more practicing music, and again more practicing.
They were growing up inside a cult where they were the only members. Their father, anxious for his daughters to become the stars they were destined to be, arranged for the band to start playing in public. The girls, who had no interest in playing music in the first place, didn’t think they were ready, but Austin’s word was law. They played at a talent show, where they were booed, and had a gig at an old folk’s home on Halloween. This wasn’t enough exposure for Austin, though, and he arranged for the girls to play a weekly show at the town hall.
Again, the girls were a bit embarrassed to be playing in public when they felt they weren’t ready, but disobedience to anything Austin said was forbidden. They played their weekly gig with their out of tune instruments, in their off key voices, with their strange songs that bore no resemblance to popular music, and a drummer that seemed to have no idea what a rhythm was. Lo and behold: people came. Teenagers came and danced as best they could to these weird songs, because what else is there to do in Fremont, New Hampshire? They also heckled the band, talked, caroused, and generally hung out. It was the social hub of teen activity in Fremont.
Spurred on by this “success,” Austin had his great brainstorm. His girls would cut a record. And so, in 1968, he rented time in a studio, and even though he kept interrupting the session because the girls were “making mistakes,” the entire album was recorded in one afternoon. He paid for a thousand discs, but depending on who you believe, the producer made off with 900 copies, or they were thrown in a dunpster, or they just disappeared. Regardless, only 100 copies of the record survived.
The Shaggs returned to their weekly gigs at the town hall until one day in 1975 Austin Wiggin had a massive heart attack and died. The sisters put down their instruments and never played again. For the most part. They had never wanted to be musicians, and now they were free of Austin’s autocratic rule. This whole story reads like a Bizarro novel, but it doesn’t end there.
Things tend to get out, and somehow a few copies of The Philosophy of the World made their way into the right hands. Frank Zappa got a hold of a copy and played a few songs on the Dr. Demento Show, proclaiming the Shaggs brilliance. A few DJs played them on the radio. Lester Bangs, of the Rolling Stone, said the album was “one of the landmarks of rock’n’roll history.” Terry Adams, singer for the band NRBQ loved them so much he convinced his record label to rerelease the album. Soon there was a full fledged Shaggs cult. People started comparing the Shaggs’ music to Chinese folk music, free jazz and Ornette Coleman. They weren’t lousy musicians, they had reinvented music in their own manner. The underground word swelled so great it resulted in RCA releasing the original album on CD. The band even reunited for one more show. In 1999 they played live at the NRBQ 30th anniversary between sets by Sun Ra and NRBQ. If this doesn’t sound like real-life Bizarro, I don’t know what does.
But is all this speculation of musical genius warranted? All along, Dot Wiggin has said, and still says, that they just weren’t ready to play when they cut their album, and some evidence appears to back her up. Below is a 15 minute video of one of their dances at the Fremont Town Hall. It was filmed by Austin Wiggin himself in 1972- three years after their album was released. It’s an interesting document. Warning- this is a poorly shot home movie- the sound cuts in an out, things go out of focus, and the crowd noise is quite evident. But we can learn several things by watching it. First is the music itself. The drummer is doing a fine job keeping the beat. The singers, while not great, can carry a tune, and even engage in some simple choreography. Their guitars are in tune, they play enthusiastically and competently. The crowd, at least some of it, seems to be enjoying itself.
It turns out there were unreleased tapes the Shaggs had recorded much later, and when those were released as “Shaggs Own Thing,” they revealed a band that had gained a lot of musical prowess since their initial recordings. The drummer had learned to play along with the band. Dot and Betty now played what can be called conventional pop music. Perhaps what Dot was saying was true, and that first album was just three teenage girls who didn’t know what they were doing. Here’s a selection from “Shaggs Own Thing.” It reveals a band that while not great, certainly weren’t the worst band ever.
But that’s STILL not the end. After the Shaggs broke up the sisters went their own ways. They all moved short distances from Fremont. Dot and Betty got married, raised families, got jobs. Helen was sickly and suffered from depression. She died in 2006. The underground fame of the Shaggs continued to grow, even though the subjects themselves were clueless. After the 1999 performance a tribute album was released by musicians who were fans. In 2012 producer and bass player Jesse Krakow staged a tribute to the Shaggs in Fremont. The sisters didn’t play, but in a Q&A session afterwards, Betty revealed she had written other songs that were never recorded, and had even written a few more recently. Krakow convinced her to let him see them, and the result was the formation of the Dot Wiggin Band.
In her characteristic humble fashion, Dot initially figured she would give Krakow the songs and he would go off and record them. He told her, “Dot fans are going to want to hear Dot sing Dot’s songs.” Reluctantly, she agreed, and Krakow assembled a band, recording the songs in Dot’s living room and the old Fremont Town Hall. What resulted was an album that is kind of like a cross between a traditional pop sound and the Shaggs first record, just as Bizarro fiction often reads like a strange combination of genre fiction and something straight out of nightmares.
Here’s a music video of the song “Banana Bike” from the Dot Wiggin Band album Ready! Get! Go! It’s one of the more recent compositions Dot wrote as a tribute to her sister Helen.
The Dot Wiggin Band, just as the Shaggs did, has continued on past what Dot thought it would. They’ve given public performances, toured as recently as 2015, even played at the Pop Montreal festival.
So, who exactly is Dot Wiggin? Is she a musical genius who reinvented pop music in 1969, or is she just someone who wrote simple songs and couldn’t play or sing very well? What is Bizarro Fiction? Is it a breath of fresh air breathing new life into the tired tropes of genre fiction, or is it just crude, masturbtory crap from people who can’t write very well? Perhaps Dot and Bizarro are alike in that they’re a combination of both the best and worst of the claims made about them.
Lee Widener is a lifelong collector of weird music. For ten years he ran the internet radio station NeverEndingWonder Radio, which specialized in odd, unusual, freaky and bizarre music, and still runs a small Halloween themed radio station, which can be found at Welcome to Weirdsville . He is the author of “David Bowie is Trying to Kill Me!” and “Rock N Roll Head Case” published in October 2015 by Eraserhead Press.
Besides having a cool name, William Pauley III is one of those writers whose books never fail to entertain because he takes full advantage of bizarro’s lack of rules in order to create narratives that are fun, wild, and unique (you know, and gory and creepy from time to time). Besides being a hell of a writer, Williez is also a really cool cat with a great sense of humor and, if the picture below is any indication, antlers. WPIII’s last book brings together known characters, the Taos Hum, the Toynbee tiles, and a delicious plethora of pop culture references. I decided to ask about it, along with some other very important things. Dig it.
Who are you and what role do books play in your life?
I wish you only asked me what role books play in my life, cause this whole ‘who are you’ business is freaking me out a bit. I’ve sat here staring at the screen for at least 15 minutes wondering just who the hell I am. You’ve got me thinking about things, heavy things, things that should have been kept deep in the darkest pits of my mind. Is the rest of the interview going to be like this? Christ.
I am a father first, writer second. Whenever I have time, I work on making my dream of opening the world’s first water-only (nothing else…at all) bar a reality.
Books play a significant role in my life. Without them, I wouldn’t need bookshelves. Without bookshelves, my room would be completely empty. They say your bedroom is a reflection of your mind and without bookshelves, it would appear that my mind is mostly empty space and echoes (which is an accurate representation of only part of my brain). Oh, and books tend to have amazing stories inside them.
You read across the board; what were the last five books that made you go “Holy mackerel, this is certainly some supercalifragilisticexpialidocious shit that maybe I wish I’d written, Sammy!”?
The first one that comes to mind is The Alligators of Abraham by Robert Kloss. It’s a phenomenal book about a child’s experience during the American Civil War. His father goes off to fight, his mother dies, and the landscape is painted in such a way that it feels grounded in reality, yet somehow also completely surreal. Kloss’ voice is McCarthy/Faulkner-esque, but in 2nd person. Good stuff.
The second super-cali-docious book would have to be Burn Down the House and Everyone In It by Zachary T Owen. It’s a phenomenal collection of horror stories – some funny, some completely fucked up and scary. I get bored reading horror pretty easily, but that wasn’t the case at all here. Owen has a unique voice that I feel horror desperately needs. It’s difficult to find original ideas in that genre anymore, but Owen has a whole book of them. Hopefully he’ll one day have many books of them.
The third…David Cronenberg’s Consumed. I loved it. I’ve been a longtime fan of his films and this novel is everything I expected it to be and more. Deformed penis!
Fourth would have to be Pincher Martin by William Golding. I adore Golding’s writing. I enjoyed this book as much as I enjoyed Lord of the Flies. I’m surprised I don’t hear more people talking about this book. It’s wild, surreal, and had me flipping pages until there were no more left to flip. There is a second title to this book, and it’s a nice little tease: The Two Deaths of Christopher Martin. Keep it in mind while reading the book.
Last one: Child of God by Cormac McCarthy (or really any book by Cormac McCarthy). This one is brutal, man. For those of you that have read it, you know why this book is incredible. For those of you that haven’t read it, there are no words, other than McCarthy’s, that can accurately describe what’s in store for you when you read this novel. You’re going to feel all kinds of feels and think all kinds of thinks. A brilliant piece of literature.
I think there’s a WP3 mythos already out there. Do you agree? (Note: if you disagree, you’re wrong.)
Really? There are plenty of stories to tell, I’ll admit that, but I’m not so sure what travels from ear to ear. I’d love to hear this mythos if it does indeed exist. Oh wait, are you talking about my dick?
4. Answer three of the following five questions: A- What the hell is wrong with Joseph Bouthiette Jr.?
I admire that guy. He is 100% himself all the time, no apologies and no regrets. Yes, he ate a copy of HEARERS OF THE CONSTANT HUM, but he did it because he wanted to. He set his mind to it and he accomplished his goals. We should all aspire to be like Junior. I want to see more people eating my book.
B- When was the last time you murdered someone?
C- When are we having some beers?
The only reason why we haven’t yet is because I am trying to save enough money to buy you all the beers I owe you. Every time I get close, you do something else and I owe you more beers. So…soon. And so many beers…
D- What’s it like working with Mr. Andersen Prunty?
I do all the work while he sleeps on the couch and farts.
E- Who cut the cheese?
I only had to answer three, but I think you can figure the answer to this out if you’ve been paying attention.
What’s your latest book about and why should everyone get to clicking and grab a copy right now?
My latest book is called HEARERS OF THE CONSTANT HUM. It’s about a man who hears insects speaking, repeating the same phrase over and over again. He becomes obsessed with creating a way for other people to hear it and he quickly discovers the further he goes on his journey, the more his body collapses. He is determined to finish his work before his inevitable death…the future of the world depends on it. The book is also about a young woman who aspires to be uniquely individual and completely independent, but finds herself being held back due to various internal and external struggles. It’s also about a problematic relationship between two brothers, and also commitment, and loyalty, and human interaction, and technology, and the fact that we are all losing something precious as we progress. Are the sacrifices worth it? I’d like to think the book makes a strong argument for both sides, leaving the decision up to the reader. That said, I’d love to hear your thoughts after reading.
Everyone should get to clicking and grab a copy right now because you are all humans and this book was intended to be read by humans.
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of Gutmouth and a few other things no one will ever read. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias
Below you’ll find Alan M. Clark’s weekly Dilation Exercise. It uses an illustration from his new novel, Say Anything But Your Prayers, released today by Lazy Fascist Press, and is inspired by the story. Please look at the picture, read the caption, above and below the image, and allow your imagination to go to work on it. This time, since this image and text are a product of a finished work, please don’t elaborate on the story with comments. Need a further explanation about the Dilation Exercises? Go to Imagination Workout—The Dilation Exercises.
Tears ran down Elizabeth’s cheeks and into her blouse as she took the old woman’s cold, crooked hand into her own.
I might as well have cut her throat, she thought.
—Alan M. Clark
Artwork: “The Old Woman’s Crooked Hand” copyright © 2014 Alan M. Clark. Interior illustration for Say Anything But Your Prayers by Alan M. Clark – Lazy Fascist Press.