Under bleak Midwest skies, comedic singer-songwriter Roy Zimmerman pulls over by the side of the highway to talk about his place in the musical history books. For a man whose body of work encompasses duets with Laura Love and a fan base that includes Joni Mitchell and the Dead Kennedys—you would think Zimmerman would be relaxing in an air-conditioned tour bus. Instead he drives himself to all his gigs and acts as his own press agent. “I’m in Okemah, Oklahoma,” Zimmerman boasts over the phone. “The birthplace of Woody Guthrie.”
Zimmerman honed his chops at the San Jose Repertory Theatre writing musical reviews in the 1980s skewering the yuppies that peppered the Silicon Valley (“YUP!”, “Up the YUP!” and “YUP it UP!”). The punning pundit-with-guitar blossomed during the comedy boom of that time. “I had a duo during that time with [Santa Cruz virtuoso] Stevie Coyle and we were called the Reagan Brothers,” the witty comic remembers. “We played the Comedy Store and all the clubs and learned a lot about standing and delivering.” Tom Lehrer—once a Santa Cruz native—has held the torch for decades as America’s premier satirist. In meetings between the master and the student, Zimmerman fondly recalls, “Lehrer said I was more political than he was. He said that he was often seen as political but that his forte was more social commentary with broad potshots.” Zimmerman, on the other hand, is an obvious dyed-in-the-wool Lefty. With song titles like “Guns in Space” and “One World, One Bank,” there’s no gray area on where Zimmerman stands. But, his performance will mutate depending on the mood of the crowd, so it doesn’t always have the sting of social/political commentary.
An unapologetic liberal, the more-than-novelty singer just wants to find a way to represent in a manner that makes people laugh and think and ultimately win friendships. “I play some comedy joints but mostly I play music clubs and alternative venues like Unitarian Churches, coffee shops and house concerts,” he says. “It allows me to be a lot freer to walk the fence between comedy and social commentary.” This week he hits the Kuumbwa Jazz stage on Saturday, March 13.
Two weeks each month Zimmerman hits the road and performs for America. “It’s interesting playing these parts of the country—I’m heading to Norman, Oklahoma. There’s a very strong progressive underground there, huddling in basements, and when somebody comes to town they show up in droves,” Zimmerman points out. “Sometimes in the more remote towns it’s easier to focus people’s attention on issues and populist ideas.”
With an impressive five million hits on YouTube, and performing alongside everyone from Lewis Black and Dennis Miller to George Carlin, you would think Zimmerman would be gracing the cover of Rolling Stone magazine and playing illustrious festivals—but he remains decidedly a do-it-yourselfer. “My wife and I book these tours ourselves, I have maintained relationships with all these places across the country and it’s really a Mom and Pop operation,” the veteran road performer is proud to say.
He looks too clean-cut to be a snake oil salesman and the glint in his eye reveals that preaching may not be the only thing on his mind. Roy Zimmerman may not have been officially handed the torch from the king of novelty songs but he has certainly taken the reins on reflecting America’s hypocrisy in melodic clips. And, don’t be fooled, Zimmerman warns he’s an equal opportunity offender.
“It really doesn’t matter to me who’s in office. It was easy to take shots at Bush, but to tell you the truth I’m happy not to have to do that anymore; it got tiresome. My heart is doing better with Obama.”
Roy Zimmerman performs at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 13, at Kuumbwa Jazz, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $18 in advance, $22 at the door. For more information, call 479-9421 or go to snazzyproductions.com.
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