It was one of the most captivating and affecting songs released in 1991. It's so profound Greil Marcus felt the need to discuss it in his new book Dead Elvis. It could have been the cut to launch the career of a band called the Odds. But "Wendy Under the Stars" will never be played on commercial radio or video. It'll never be a hit.
The tune begins with the sound of crickets chirping. A soft acoustic guitar adds a layer of texture and Steven Drake sings softly about the 31-year-old woman who, in the spooky glow of the television picture, puts a finger in the ear of a seventeen-year-old boy-becoming-a-man. He pulls her finger out so he can hear. The man on TV is saying the king of rock and roll is dead. The woman is saying, "Don't ever forget this night." It's a quiet moment, a haunting moment, unforgettable. The male character's soul is torn between the fatal news and his lustful attraction. Soon she will lead him by the hand into a field to show him "what passion could mean." The juxtaposition is mesmerizing: death and sex, and many other things, banging against each other in this teen-ager's mind.
But everyone knows Elvis isn't dead. And the two characters in this song are not having sex. They're not making love, either. The chorus goes like this: "I was fucking Wendy/Under the stars/The night that Elvis died." This is the transformative power of music - a three-minute pop song that is like watching a movie, reading a novel, attending an opera, all at the same time. And that communicative and artistic power depends on the choice of the word "fucking." It is the poet exercising his license. And it's a stupid damn business decision. "I think it was obvious to the label [Zoo] that we'd change the word," Craig Northey, the group's other vocalist, says. "We countered by asking, `What would you come up with to give you the same feeling?' Everyone became resigned to the fact we were going to put it on the record. People still try to brainstorm. `We could just...' but you can't. `Fucking' is a word that gives you that creepy feeling, if you could call it `creepy.'" It is the right word.
And on the strength of their debut, Neapolitan, the Odds are a right band. The very idea of putting "feeling" - that is, the art - ahead of more practical considerations, especially for a band that has signed its first big deal and is making its first album, is a music-biz aberration. You can't write it off to petulance, either, the too-cool-for-school snot band causing trouble for the blue suits. One person who would never stand for petulance is Warren Zevon, and the Odds are opening for Mr. Z and backing him on his current tour. "We've been waiting to be asked how we got together," Northey says. "Either he saw us on Star Search or we were appearing as Four Jacks and a Jill in a Ramada Inn playing his songs. But neither happened. He saw us in a strip bar in New Orleans. We weren't playing, we were just there. No, we were backing the strippers." No, not that, either. "Essentially what happened is that he was given CDs by a bunch of bands. Ours was on the bottom of the pile, which is where he took it from. Steven [Drake] says Warren is a man who always deals from the bottom of the deck."
Zevon has enlisted extant bands to help him in the past (R.E.M. backed him on his masterful Sentimental Hygiene album, for example). He allows the Odds to flex when they support him after playing their own set. "He gives us the chance to put our own mark on what he's doing," Northey says. "He doesn't ever say, `Just play it like the record.' And he doesn't crack a whip, either."
The grizzled rocker has also helped the young band from Vancouver adjust to the spotlight, the new-band-hype aspect of their career. "We've gotten a lot of press," Northey says. "And Warren's been a mentor. He's been through this and he's already done it. So we sit around and talk about it. With reviews, you can get upset with a bad one and gleeful or boastful with a good one. We take them all lightly. We thought about with interviews not having a quip or a comeback, but whatever they ask or say, you can fight your way out of anything. It's the nature of the beast. If the spoon didn't have a name, everyone would fight over what to call it and what it should be used for. So no one would ever get around to using it."
The idea of a band opening and backing an established artist is not unique - remember Roger McGuinn and the Headlights? - and it's not cause for a Trend Alert, like the T.A. sent up when the Canadian Invasion made itself evident. Without pigeonholing the Odds (they're a spoon!), Canadian acts such as the Tragically Hip, Crash Test Dummies, and Blue Rodeo share a distinct lack of artificial embellishment. Stage attire and studio gimmickry take a back seat to good ol' guitar-drum rock with smart lyrics and a down-to-earth attitude. "It's just a matter of playing the music," offers Northey. "We're not looking at whatever people are wearing. We're not looking over our shoulders to make sure we're fresh." The Odds write great songs, record them well, and play them live. All the other trappings are irrelevant.