Public Enemy

Shared experience: You are in a bar, sipping whatever you're sipping, waiting for a friend to come back from the bathroom. There's a lone man a few seats away, and he makes you nervous — he keeps giving you a look that says, "Man, I really want to talk to you, cuz I've got something I really need to say." You know he's going to do it, you know you're doomed to spend the rest of your time in this shitty bar (and why'd you have to come to this shitty bar in the first place?) trying to smile and look engaged in this terrible person's rap, whatever it is, lest he turn nasty when he senses that, inside your nodding head, you're silently screaming, "Go away you asshole!" You know the only thing keeping him from coming over to you are those last three inches at the bottom of his glass and the tenuous grasp on lucidity, protocol, and appropriateness that they represent. You thank god for those three inches. Then the lone man downs them all at once, grins at you, and walks over. "The fucking government!" he exclaims, slapping you on the back. And so it begins.

This is almost exactly what it feels like to be trapped in Sixth Star Studios with Neal Fox's Thank You, Dan Rather — a show that lures you in with a few reasonable expectations and then forces you to endure 90 minutes of hollow ramblings from a man who simultaneously conveys paranoia, stupidity, and hypocrisy, with a delivery that alternates the stiffly ironic with the dew-eyed maudlin. As a scientific investigation into the darkest wilds of human potentiality, Dan Rather is vaguely informative. As a night at the theater, it's an oozing boil of a show — embarrassing to see, painful and soiling to the touch.

It didn't have to be thus. Neal Fox is the tunesmith who co-penned the theme to The CBS Evening News with Dan Rather; the penultimate economic achievement of a career that began as an honest run at the rock 'n' roll dream and devolved into jingling when the bills came due. After a series of record deals fell through in his youth (including one engineered by Clive Davis), Fox found himself writing commercial ditties for everything from tea to Pintos to Connie Chung. The meal-ticket, though, was that Dan Rather theme. And when Dan Rather resigned after his righteous ire made him just a little too crazy, Fox needed some cash. Apparently, he intends to make it with Thank You, Dan Rather, and this would seem like a nice idea. A real exploration of the way human lives are created at the periphery of the media would make for a fascinating show, and I think that's what his audience expects. That's not what they get.

Instead, Fox recaps his career and performs an intermittently funny song called "Dan, You Da Man," before leaping off the deep end, riffing disjointedly about the evils of politics, the evils of the media, the evils of Big Pharma. The vibe he puts out is so self-righteous, so bullying, so based upon an implied assumption of his own sacrosanct status as an empowered speaker, that it's a tribute to American decency and manners that last Friday's audience didn't get up and leave.

Maybe it's because Neal Fox is a stupendous songwriter. It's true — he can pen an awesome melody, and most of his songs are so ingeniously composed that even people who leave feeling spiritually raped might want to buy the CD. His lyrics will remind you of the queasier effusions of Dennis DeYoung, but so what? How many rock 'n' roll records do you buy for the lyrics? Fox should have re-evaluated his strengths and started a band.

But that's not what he did.

So, rather than a rock 'n' roll show, we get this righteous man-against-the-machine, recalling when he decided to start penning musicals. "The string running through my shows was the idea of 'truth,'" he modestly explains. Thanks, Mr. Jingle Writer. Please tell us the truth. Then you can sell us a Pinto.

Rather than providing rock, or drama, or an honest recollection of an interesting career, Neal Fox sets up a song by doing a mock radio show in which he takes phone calls from ordinary Americans and is disgusted to find that they don't have anything to say. Glad you have such respect for your fellow citizens, Mr. Jingle Writer. Gosh, we're so brainless. Save us! Then sell us some tea!

Rather than some kind of personal exploration of the kind one might hope to experience at an autobiographical one-man show, Neal Fox gives us George Carlin for retards. Fox rails against the drug companies, noting how many people die per year from taking their drugs correctly ("Do those drugs get taken off the market?" Fox wants to know. "Guess we know who the FDA works for!"), never once wondering how many people would die if they didn't take their meds. This is rather like criticizing seatbelts for occasionally strangling people who would otherwise have flown through their windshields into the middle of the freeway. Then, in the most aggressive act of intellectual dishonesty I have ever witnessed at the theater, Fox proceeds to blame school shootings on anti-depressants.

All of this makes you wonder: is Neal Fox ... Evil? Probably not — most likely, he's just cataclysmically devoid of self-awareness. Which is why, instead of giving us art or truth or ordinary human revelation, Fox rails against the distancing effects of television in a song called "Little Girl" — "TV entertain me, with your package full of lies." He does this straight-faced, never acknowledging his own culpability in the problem he diagnoses. But who, exactly, is responsible for all these bullshit images on TV? Who's spent years tarting up stupid commercials with catchy melodies to make folks buy and buy and buy, blurring the lines between truth and lies all the while? In the Sixth Star Studios last Friday, only one man could have copped to such a thing, and he didn't. Instead, he said, the problem is always other people. Well, fuck you very much. Find me a man who blames the world's problems on other people, and I'll show you the man responsible for the world's problems. This isn't Evil with a capital E — this is the prosaic evil of dumbness, and it's not our job to hate it. We've just got to stay away.

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Brandon K. Thorp