SameDiff BNL

Watch out for Barenaked Ladies

By JOHN SCHWARTZ, The Washington Post, August 10th, 1999.

The Barenaked Ladies have an important message for the world:

Enough, already, with the macaroni and cheese!

The band's fans ritualistically pelt the Ladies with macaroni and cheese at a certain point in almost every concert. Yes, cooked. Slimy. Smelly. In a way, the Canadian rockers brought it on themselves: They've always put on a, well, interactive show, with a lot of improvisation and give-and-take with the audience.

The periodic cheese storms occur at the high point of one of the band's best-loved songs, "If I Had $1,000,000," which details the goofy get-rich fantasies of adolescent slackers, with vocalists Ed Robertson and Steven Page singing alternate lines:

If I had a million dollars

We wouldn't have to walk to the store

If I had a million dollars

We'd take a limousine 'cause it costs more

If I had a million dollars

We wouldn't have to eat Kraft dinners -

But we WOULD eat Kraft dinners

Of course we would — we'd just eat more!

(And buy really expensive ketchups with it)

(Yeah, all the finest... Dijon ketchups!)

Since 1992, fans have been tossing macaroni and cheese onstage whenever that verse is sung. Now bass player Jim Creeggan says it's time to stop.

"I get too much cheese inside my bass," he said. "It's not very easy to clear (that) out of it."

After all, this is not the plucky clutch of smart rockers who captured the hearts of Canadian music fans in the early 1990s, went off to conquer the States — and suffered as two subsequent albums failed to catch on. Now they're ending the decade by actually accomplishing their goal with the 1998 hit "One Week," a silly, hip-hoppy lightweight that seems to have been memorized by middle-schoolers from sea to shining sea. They're closing in on 4 million copies of the album that "One Week" appears on, "Stunt."

Part of their appeal is that they look like regular guys. Drummer Tyler Stewart is so chunky and bassist Creeggan so scrawny that a regular onstage riff is for Robertson to stand the two men side by side and announce, "Ladies and gentlemen, today 'Sesame Street' is brought to you by the letter O and the number 1!"

It's all part of the antic humor of their live gigs, in which they are wont to break into comic monologues, loony dances, improvised songs about whatever strikes them — say, the toiletries provided in their hotel rooms. In other words, happy chaos. With a beat.

They formed in 1988, intentionally taking on an absurd name that evoked the wide-eyed, goofy adolescent persona of many of their early songs. Creeggan draws out the phrase in explanation: " 'Bare, naked ladies!' — just sort of conjures the kid mentality, the kid head-space of being excited about something mysterious."

The promising 1992 debut album, "Gordon," was a trove of startlingly innovative songs with rich, clever lyrics that sold hundreds of thousands of copies... in Canada. Barenaked Ladies remained largely unknown below the 49th parallel. Their next two records didn't sell well — which almost certainly made it a struggle to keep the sense of humor that made the first so engaging.

Other early songs, though, show a brooding sensibility and a fascination with the dark corners of the mind. In "When I Fall," a window washer has developed a fear of heights; the gut-churning rocker "The Old Apartment" is narrated by a creep who comes back to his former haunt to terrorize his ex-girlfriend. And then there's "Straw Hat and Old Dirty Hank," about an obsessive fan stalking a female singer.

"I'm a relatively dark person sometimes, but I have a sense of humor about the fact that I can be a dark person," said Page, who writes many of the songs. "I think most people, if you stand on the roof of a building... have a voice that says, 'What if I jumped off?'

"I write about it rather than doing it."

The band began the climb back with "Rock Spectacle," but even as they climbed, trouble struck again: Keyboard player Kevin Hearn developed leukemia and had to take a leave of absence.

Then "Stunt" turned out to be a monster. And Hearn responded well to treatment and is now considered cancer-free; he is playing on this tour.

"One Week," though, was such an overplayed hit that the band went from being relatively unknown to widely disliked.

"It used to be, 'I don't like this band, and I'm glad they're not popular,' " said Page, who admits it's definitely a novelty song. "Now it's 'I don't like this band, and I don't understand why they're popular.' It's OK. We're not for everybody."