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Whistling past the graveyard

I’ve written this before, but one of the most formative musical experiences of my life was having Peter Jesperson play “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” at the end of the night at the old Longhorn Bar in downtown Minneapolis. Invariably, the moment would come after some uberhipster show; some watershed new wave or punk moment; some macho man slam danceathon: There would be Peter, holding forth in the deejay booth, grinning maniacally as the Monty Python crew escorted young lovers and tough guys off the dance floor and into the night with:

Some things in life are bad
They can really make you mad
Other things just make you swear and curse
When you’re chewing on life’s gristle
Don’t grumble, give a whistle
And this’ll help things turn out for the best…
And …
… always look on the bright side of life …

The chorus of whistles would come in, all quixotic and beauti-dippy, and, as the nightclub critters gathered their coats and dates and selves, their hazy hearts and minds would invoke the crucifixion scene of “Brian,” in which the three doomed Pythoners whistled while they wept. Or maybe that was just me.

If life seems jolly rotten
There’s something you’ve forgotten
And that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing
When you’re feeling in the dumps
Don’t be silly chumps
Just purse your lips and whistle — that’s the thing.
And …
… always look on the bright side of life

The Longhorn scenario has long been my favorite rendition of “Bright Side.” That all changed this week as I found myself at the Orpheum Theatre for the opening night of  “Spamalot,” and had the rare pleasure of singing along to it with a few thousand muted Minnesotans. At the end, yellow confetti rained o’er me and my brother Terry. With the whistles still fresh in our hearts, we walked up the street to see — who else? — George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic over at First Avenue, and we like to think we’re the only people on planet pleasure to have ever heard “Bright Side” and “Give Up the Funk” as done live by the originals in the same hour.

For life is quite absurd
And death’s the final word
You must always face the curtain with a bow
Forget about your sin — give the audience a grin
Enjoy it — it’s your last chance anyhow.
So always look on the bright side of death
Just before you draw your terminal breath

God, did we laugh. Everybody did. And it occurs to me — not for the first time in recent months — that in times of war, comedy has always come through. The great comedians have always risen to the occasion during times of national insecurity and mass personality crises, which is why people have been flocking to see barmy Brits Eddie Izzard at the State Theatre earlier this week and across the street to see “Spamalot” (through Sunday): smart slapstick about the world we live in, coming to town the week after an historic Memorial Day that brought us graveyard visits and discussions about dead young men and women we call soldiers, not what they are: kids.

Life’s a piece of shit
When you look at it
Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke it’s true
You’ll see it’s all a show
Keep ’em laughing as you go
Just remember that the last laugh is on you
And always look on the bright side of life …

It’s true that music lifts your spirits. Which is the explanation I’m giving and sticking to for the following, written down on my “Spamalot” program in the dark: “We are living through an unprecedented jazz age-slash-summer of love, a precursor to the happy-days-are-here-again-but-we’ve-got-a-ton-of-work-to-do unification powers of Obamania, or whatever we’re calling it, which is going to make the Kennedys’ Camelot years look like an Aryan bake sale at Interlachen.” 

Worse things happen at sea you know.
I mean — what have you got to lose?
You know, you come from nothing
— you’re going back to nothing.
What have you lost?

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