MAGNET Feedback With Michael Cerveris


It’s one thing to be a creative quadruple threat (film actor, stage actor, television actor, musician); it’s another thing entirely to excel as a quadruple threat for the better part of 43 years. From multiple Tony nominations—and wins—to starring roles on Fame and Treme, Michael Cerveris may be best known for his versatility as a thespian, but he proves just as formidable behind the mic on his long-awaited sophomore solo album, Piety (Low Heat). His sonic pedigree is unsurprisingly impressive, having shared the stage with the likes of the Breeders, Bob Mould, Teenage Fanclub and Frank Black. We celebrate workaholic Cerveris’ latest triumph by mining the veteran’s thoughts on indie, country and jazz contemporaries.

Big Star, “Jesus Christ” from: Third/Sister Lovers
I have always loved this song—one of the few bright moments of Third/Sister Lovers, which is such a beautiful, dark record. It’s always been one of my favorite Christmas tunes. In fact, it was the first one Loose Cattle recorded in our annual free Christmas single series. It just seems so unabashedly hopeful and, well, Christian in a non-dogmatic, embracing kind of way. I never knew if Alex Chilton was being sarcastic (that always seemed like a possibility), but with the production and all, it seems sincere—and sincerity in pop music is pretty rare, especially when it’s a song about being joyful. I guess that’s what I love about it: the lack of a need to mask joy, even if you’re playing music for the cool kids.

Boston Spaceships, “How Wrong You Are” from: Zero To 99
Despite being a devoted, rabid, borderline obsessive GBV fan and Fading Captain completist, there came a point some years ago when I confess I got a little overwhelmed trying to keep up with Bob. So, I somehow missed a lot of Boston Spaceships, and this total Pollard gem. Robert Pollard always makes me smile and turn into a kid bobbing my head in my bedroom or behind the wheel of the ‘69 Dodge Dart I drove into the ground. I admire the hell out of how he’s made music utterly on his terms for years and never let growing old or people’s opinions of age in rock mean a fuck to him. And this song is just vintage Bob: Kinks-y, Beatles-y, 120 Minutes-y. It’s like an indie-rock time machine.

Death Cab For Cutie, “Codes And Keys” from: Codes And Keys
I never quite got on the Death Cab train, for reasons I’ve never understood. I probably had an ex-girlfriend who loved them so much and then stomped on my heart at some point, and I just associated them with fecklessness. Which is a shame, because I think a lot of their songs are great, like “I Will Follow You Into The Dark.” Additionally, Ben Gibbard will always have my respect for taking Big Freedia out on tour with the Postal Service in 2013, broadening and blowing the minds of their wispy indie-kid followers.

Ella Fitzgerald, “Mack The Knife” from: Ella In Berlin
Ella Fitzgerald is just amazing, and one of my favorite scat singers next to Louie Armstrong. She does things with a melody and a lyric that defy description, and her take on this song is a wild one that’s fun to hear. But I’ve always been kind of confused by how this really twisted piece of Weimar jazz cabaret by Kurt Weill has been such a popular standard, often sung by crooner types who just kind of neuter it of its darkness by making it swing like they want to show us they’re “wild hepcats, man.” When I was playing Kurt Weill in LoveMusik, I found a recording of Bertolt Brecht singing it in German with Weill’s original orchestrations. That weird mixture of off-kilter calliope brightness and dark maniacal glee is what I feel this tune should always have, whoever’s singing it.

Hawkshaw Hawkins, “Lonesome 7-7203” from: Lonesome 7-7203
From my hometown, Huntington, W.V.! Most people know his name because he died in the same plane crash that killed Patsy Cline. Fewer know that he bought his first guitar by trading five rabbits that he’d trapped. These are things you learn when you have West Virginia studies in high school. This is one of my favorite kinds of country tune. A whole story and character delivered in less than three minutes with a great hook and a melancholy, but witty lyric. And props to Hawkshaw for bringing vibraphone into the country-music palette.

Hollywood Vampires, “My Generation” from: Hollywood Vampires
I’m sorry. I like Alice Cooper, Johnny Depp and Joe Perry as much as the next guy who likes them OK. But I don’t really see the point of this. On the other hand, maybe that’s unfair. I mean, why shouldn’t massive rock stars and their movie star friends get together with their other equally or more famous random friends and play through the songs they wish they’d written, just like the rest of us do? Just because their pickup band plays live on AOL from Rock In Rio and ours plays for tips for the bartender and the guy fixing the toilets, that doesn’t mean they’re bad …

Hüsker Dü, “Green Eyes” from: Flip Your Wig
One of many songs I love from Flip Your Wig. That blend of pop songwriting and blistering delivery that Hüsker Dü invented is a deep part of my musical soul. Even though this one is a Grant Hart song, it of course makes me think of my brief time playing guitar for Bob Mould on his ’98 U.S./U.K. tour. That was one of the highlights of my whole life—not just the creative part of it. The hours playing onstage, trying my absolute fucking best to deserve to be there and trying to conquer my fear that I didn’t, and the many more hours of Bob and I taking turns at the wheel of our rented sedan, driving cross-country and talking into the night about life and music and deep stories from his past, while Matt Hammon and Jim Wilson slept in the back seat. And while it didn’t all go precisely according to plan (or maybe exactly as remembered in his book), I will always be grateful for the time he gave me the gift of that experience and trust and respect.

Cyndi Lauper & The Minus 5, “Midnight Radio” from: Wig In A Box: Songs From And Inspired By Hedwig & The Angry Inch
I love this cover. I’ve always admired Cindy Lauper—classically trained, genre-defying and -defining. I love how she completely gets parts of this song wrong, but just holds on by force of will (and remarkable breath control) until the band comes around to where she is. I’d say she really gets the heart of this song. Which is good, because it’s always been one of my favorites from Hedwig. It was the moment in every show where I would be soaked in sweat, covered in bits of smashed tomato, seeds and juice running down my near-naked body, lipstick and glitter in my teeth, and strands of wig hair in my throat, my voice on its last cords … and then have to sing this Bowie-esque song of redemption, release and communion. It felt like the purest rock ‘n’ roll catharsis and apotheosis every time. It still does.

The Sex Pistols, “No Feelings” from: Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols
I am proud to say that when I sang this as Ian Ware on Fame, I believe I was the first person ever to sing a Sex Pistols tune on American national television. Possibly including the Sex Pistols. And even though it was a na show populated by mid-to-late 20-somethings pretending we were in high school, we did deserve some cred points for having Lee Ving of Fear in one episode. For the club scene where I sang “No Feelings,” I told the producers not to get extras from central casting, that I would go to the Scream Club (my regular weekend haunt in L.A.) and get real punks and musicians to come be in the background. The o er of $50 and free catering and craft services was enough incentive that I managed to fi ll the studio with leather, chains, mascara and hair gel to last all season. You can spot members of the Zeros, Kommunity FK and my friend Kaptain, who sometimes did costumes for Troma features and porn films, and insisted he had been Guns N’ Roses’ first drummer when they were all squatting in a house in the Hollywood Hills. (Who am I to question him?) I’m very proud to have brought that to television screens across the country.

Simon & Garfunkel, “America” from: Bookends
One of my favorite S&G songs. It’s folky and pop, and has that swelling B3, the Leslied guitar, the crazed clarinet sounds. I love pop music that’s so lovingly orchestrated and meticulously arranged. Serge Gainsbourg, Van Dyke Parks, Scott Walker. This song is somehow simple and epic at the same time. Which makes it a perfect representation of the subject in its title. It also feels so Super 8-movie kind of nostalgic, and speaks to that idealism and innocent belief in the idea of our country that so often gets co-opted by rightwing conservatives. This is the sound of progressive America being patriotic. Sure, the idealism is tempered with irony and cool—I don’t see the problem with that. And the Kathy (Chitty) verse breaks my heart every time. Also it makes Saginaw seem as exotic as Xanadu.

Sleater-Kinney, “A New Wave” from: No Cities To Love
Name me another band that has come back from a 10-year hiatus with a return to form that not only doesn’t miss a beat, but actually one-ups its own genius catalog of passionate, thoughtful, impossibly cool rawk. Yeah, I thought so. Full disclosure: These are friends of mine, and Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss played on my first record (Corin even co-wrote a track), but that only makes me more of a fan. Their gender is both beside the point and exactly the point. Janet pounds harder than almost any drummer I can think of, but with such tasty, surprising and intricately melodic parts; Carrie shreds like a mother, is a great writer and comedienne, and has the best rock-star moves of any guitar player working; Corin is a mother and a subtly brilliant writer with a voice that is a force of nature. Thank God(dess) for Sleater-Kinney.

Teenage Fanclub, “Baby Lee” from: Shadows
More full disclosure: Norman Blake is a longtime dear friend, and I’ve spent a fair bit of time with the Fannies over the years. I made a record with Norman, Raymond McGinley and Francis Macdonald that never got released, but contains early versions of some songs on my Piety LP. I can listen to TFC anytime, anywhere and be immediately happier. Those harmonies! Those melodies! Those chiming guitars! I love that with three great songwriters, they make a policy of each having four songs per record and sharing duties and spoils. Even in the early distortion-drenched records, the songwriting and melodies were there. They have that gift for writing tunes you feel you’ve always loved from the fi rst time you hear them. This is one of many favorites. Two decades and nine albums in, and they’re still writing songs like this. I can’t wait for the next one.