Stories Behind Five Primus Classics

by Greg Prato

In 2014, I collaborated with Primus on a book that recounted their entire history, Primus, Over the Electric Grapevine: Insight into Primus and the World of Les Claypool. Issued via Akashic Books, quite a few big-named chaps were interviewed, including all band members past and present, Metallica's Kirk Hammett, Tom Waits, the Police's Stewart Copeland, Rush's Geddy Lee, and South Park's Matt Stone, among countless others (as well as a foreword provided by Muse's Matthew Bellamy).

Below are excerpts from the book, in which Primus' singer/bassist/lyricist, Les Claypool, tells the stories behind five Primus classics. And if you're wondering why such gems as "Jerry Was a Race Car Driver," "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver," and "The South Park Theme" were not included, it's because Les already told those stories in a Songfacts interview.
"Tommy The Cat"
Suck On This (1989), Sailing The Seas Of Cheese (1991)
In "Tommy The Cat," I had this bass part that I really liked. This sort of freight-train–sounding bass part. I remember playing it for this woman, from a band, who I was kind of going out with, and she was like, "Oh my god, it sounds like something moving slow and low to the ground."

So I got to kind of thinking about it, and I had this whole "Say baby" thing in my head - Say baby, do you want to lay down with me? And I was like, "How can I say that?" Because I was never one to write songs about partying or "Who's that sexy chick?" That's not my thing.

But I loved that "Say baby, do you want to lay down with me?" How can I make that something that reflects something that I would do, and not a song about just, "Hey, let's go fuck." So I thought of this whole tomcat character, and him seducing this very voluptuous vixen. It's somewhat based on a guy that I used to be in a band with, Tommy Crank. Because he was just this smooth character. He always wore a fedora - long before anybody was wearing fedoras. Actually a wide brim, more of a Panama. Just a real smooth guy, a cool guy. It's kind of based on him. But it's purely fictional. It's my "Mickey Mouse," basically.

"John The Fisherman"
Frizzle Fry (1990)
"John The Fisherman," I remember years ago, I was watching the news and they had talked about, "There's this fishing boat that's gone down outside the Golden Gate Bridge" - I believe it was a salmon boat. Apparently, it had gotten struck by a cargo ship. They played the audio of this guy calling the coast guard, and it was unbelievably haunting to hear this guy going, "There's a ship coming through the fog! It's going to hit us! It's going to hit us!" And then that's all you hear.

I remember hearing him say, "Oh my god, we're going down," or something to that effect. And that was it - that was all you heard. It just gave me chills. So I thought, What would be the story of this guy? So I built this whole story of John The Fisherman, and the notion that they get struck - I don't know if it actually says it in the song, but, "Oh my god, we're going down." It's taken from the account of this fishing vessel getting struck by a ship and it going down. And they never found anybody.

"Those Damned Blue-Collar Tweekers"
Sailing the Seas of Cheese (1991)

"Those Damned Blue-Collar Tweekers"... I was in the trades, so I was a carpenter for a number of years before I was able to quit and make a living noodling my fingers around. And I've been around a lot of guys - especially older union guys. Some of these guys are friends with my father. They're getting older and, to keep up with the young guys, do some crank during the day or before they start work. Some guys drink a bunch of coffee, some guys drink a bunch of coffee and do some crank.

I was amazed at how much methamphetamine - and this was 20-plus years ago - was in the trades. And for better or worse, it's fueled a lot of progress in the construction arena. But the flame that burns twice as bright burns only half as long, which I say at the end of the song.

"Mr. Krinkle"
Pork Soda (1993)
"Mr. Krinkle" is basically about conversations I used to have with [Faith No More drummer] Mike Bordin. Mike Bordin, his hotel room name was "Mr. Krinkle."

If you read the lyrics or listen to the song, it's basically about conversations with Mike. He's a huge San Francisco Giants fan, and there was all this talk that the Giants were going to move from San Francisco. So, "Hey there, Mr. Krinkle, how are you today? Seems the rumors are abound your team might move away." And he was really pissed off about this!

"Hey there, Mr. Krinkle, let's cruise the bastard boat" - we used to go out on my boat.

The thing about Mike, he is one of these guys like Mike Watt - he has a very interesting perspective on things, and he's really good at tossing out these colorful little quips on how he perceives things. So we would have these great conversations on the phone. That's what "Mr. Krinkle" is all about.

"Lee Van Cleef"
Green Naugahyde (2011)
Well, "Lee Van Cleef" - I love Lee Van Cleef. Every time I flip on the TV and I see old Lee, it just makes me happy. I'm a big fan of character actors. One of my favorite people is Walter Brennan - I'm going to stop and watch Walter Brennan. Y'know, Strother Martin, Walter Brennan, Slim Pickens, all these guys. I love these guys. And Lee Van Cleef is one of them too. I just started twanging away - I started singing about Lee Van Cleef.

It's basically me reflecting on my youth. The opening line is, "Classic Red Ryder at Rocky Camp down at Old Hat Creek" - I used to shoot my stepdad's old Red Ryder BB gun, like the one he had from the '50s. We used to stay at this campground called Rocky, in Hat Creek. That's right there in the first line. And it talks about my dad's old yellow Studebaker, with the 302 and the seat of green naugahyde, where we got the title of the record. It's me reflecting on my youth and how these old movies were a big part of our youth. And how everyone was well into Clint Eastwood - as I was too - but I always had a soft spot for not only Lee Van Cleef, but also Eli Wallach and all these guys. Instead of saying, "Whatever happened to Lee Van Cleef?" it's more like saying, "What happened to my youth? Where has my youth gone?" Because it's all about my youth.

June 3, 2020
Get Primus, Over the Electric Grapevine: Insight into Primus and the World of Les Claypool, on Amazon.

Further reading:
Primus Songfacts
Billy Gould of Faith No More
King's X, The Oral History
Matt Pinfield's 10 Greatest Alt Rock Videos of the '90s

More Song Writing

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