Dean Friedman: Ariel, Matzoh Balls and American Lullabys
Sometimes a pickle is just a pickle
It was the summer of Sheena and Ariel. It was also the summer of Sam and the shadowy fires of the NYC blackout.
But that didn’t matter as much to me, because I lived way on the other side of the East River, deep in the bosom of suburbia. I moved dreamily through the dreary, wide and noisy hallways of Great Neck South, pining for a place called Anywhere But Here. I built a world out of scraps of information scissored from the pages of the NME, Melody Maker, Sounds, and Trouser Press.
And I dreamed of Sheena and Ariel.
Sheena, a punk rocker, was a siren that beckoned me towards a future in the Bowery Necropolis. One day (she promised me), I would walk the two thousand yards to Northern Boulevard, climb on the bus to Main Street Flushing, get on the 7 to Times Square, and leave Exit 33 of the LIE far behind. Then, somewhere in the Million Dollar Movie montage that was The City, I would find her, and she would be clutching a copy of Spiral Scratch by the Buzzcocks. Ariel was the specter that still haunted me in the High School here and now. She was the girl in the peasant blouse with nothing underneath who took classes in the alternative school within a school. We once had a conversation about the Kinks, which was, apparently, the only cultural reference we shared.
VIDEO: Dean Friedman “Ariel”
And this is what you really need to know: In 1977, if you were a suburban child with Manhattan dreams, your world, your hallways, and your high school parking lots was full of music that did not speak to you. I was baffled, repulsed, confused, offended by Carry on My Wayward Fucking Son and all those people weeping for Lynyrd Skynyrd; Stairway to Heaven, like Tolkien, said nothing to me, had nothing to do with my life, my dreams, and my fears; since I didn’t smoke (what we called) Pot, my god what an archaic word, I could find no way into the map-less lands of the Grateful Dead; and Emerson Lake and Palmer sounded like scrambled eggs thrown at an electric fence.
But Sheena and Ariel spoke to me. They told MY story. When either of these songs came on WLIR or WNEW, why, your chin popped up, your chest puffed out, and you thought, “That’s me, they are singing to me, they are telling my story.”
Which is why, to this day, I think of Dean Friedman as a punk rocker.
Forty-four years after the summer of Sheena and Ariel, I finally got a chance to talk with Dean Friedman. This was kind of a big deal for me. After all, a few years back I had written (for another site) a 3,000-word analysis of Ariel, a bizarrely deep dive that compared the song to The Great Gatsby and Joyce’s Ulysses.
First and foremost, Dean Friedman is a lot more than “Ariel” (or the other wry, evocative, melodic and affecting hits he had in the United States and the U.K. in the puka-bead hangover years of the late Jimmy Carter era). A lot more. He is an adamant music industry survivor and a prominent (if unrecognized) pioneer of DYI recording and touring. He is the composer and singer of some of the catchiest and funniest songs about Jewish life, sung in summer camps all over the world. He is, perhaps most oddly, a pioneering (and still cited) figure in the world of home synthesizers. And he has a wonderful new album, American Lullaby, because he has something to share with the world, and he will not be stopped. Oh, and Barenaked Ladies have covered his songs, and Half Man Half Biscuit wrote a hit song about him.
Any conversation with Dean Friedman must – and should – ramble all over the place, so why not start with his amazing collection of songs about Jewish life, holidays, and habits, to be found on his album, A Million Matzoh Balls and Other Hebrew School Songs…
“A Million Matzoh Balls” is a freaking classic. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t really aware of this side of you, and once you dig into this stuff, it’s like, wow, why doesn’t everyone know about this?
I’ve got dozens and dozens of songs that are kid-tested. But I do all these different things at once, and perhaps it’s hard for the marketplace to focus on one thing? But the Hebrew School Songs have, indeed, gotten out there – I mean, they sing “A Million Matzoh Balls” in the movie Lemon. In fact, The Complete Jewish Song Book for Children, Vol. III just came out, and two of my songs are in there: “Tu B’Shvat” and “In My Sukkah.”
VIDEO: Dean Friedman performs “A Million Matzoh Balls” 2018
In the current streaming economy, artists have recognized that the music industry is no longer going to be their bank and protector; it is up to the artist to create an industry for themselves. It seems to me, from self-releasing albums to doing house concerts to really effectively scaling your business, Dean Friedman was waaaay ahead on that.
That’s arguably accurate, and it was really only by default. I crowdfunded an album in 2001, only a few months after Marillion crowdfunded their first U.S. tour, and Marillion is acknowledged as the first band to crowdfund a music project. As far as I am aware I am the first solo artist to crowdfund a project via the Internet. I was sitting in my tree house, I had a bunch of songs, and I didn’t want to wait another twenty years for some record executive to give me the permission to record. So I wrote a letter to about a thousand people on my email list – it was 2001, so having an email list of a thousand people was actually pretty significant – and I said I have some tunes, I’d like to record, I need some money to upgrade my studio and pay musicians, if you pre-order the album, I’ll start recording. I was afraid most people would write back and say, “Dean, why don’t you get a proper job,” and many of them did. But enough people were supportive of it that they helped finance that album, which was The Treehouse Journals. That was eight years before Kickstarter launched. Purely by default, because no one else was doing it for me, I started booking my own tours, I started producing and releasing my own albums. The bulk of my efforts, promotion wise, over the last forty years has been trying to reconnect with those million people who bought “Ariel” and “Lucky Stars” and “Lydia” when I started out.
You have a very active touring career in the United Kingdom, possibly more so than here in the United States.
It’s just business and politics. I have sold just as many records in the U.S. as I have in the United Kingdom, but for whatever reasons – and it really goes back to the strength of the label I was on in the U.K. in the late 1970s – in the U.K. they were able to get more airplay and generate more chart hits, which provided me with a higher media profile over there. As a result, I was able to consolidate a touring circuit over there. It’s frustrating, because I have had, by necessity, to focus on what I had the most access to – the U.K. audience – I neglected my own country in terms of touring, and consolidating any kind of touring scenario over here. It’s also logistically just more expensive to tour in America, of course. It’s business, it’s logistics. I have done what I could with modest means, independently. It can be a bitch to maintain it and sustain it. But I do feel there’s a core audience, and strangely, it’s growing.
One of the interesting things about your new album, American Lullaby, is that it is book-ended – and I mean that literally – by these two very majestic, lovely songs that remind me of Van Dyke Parks or Pleasure of the Harbor-era Phil Ochs, and in between you, again, take the role of intimate storyteller. At the beginning and the end of the album, you sing with great grace about a timeless America, and in between you describe an America in crisis. Was this intentional?
Yes, it is intentional. The project really began for me the day we woke up to find that a bankrupt real estate developer and money launderer was President. It’s hard to recall how mind-boggling and traumatic that event was. The whole album was initiated by that event, that sense of unmooring. It was a rent in the fabric of what we thought reality was in this country. And that led, inevitability, to all these other crises. So I just had a compulsion to keep writing about those topics. At the same time, I was conscious of trying to balance it, because of the palpable sense of emotional trauma everyone was experiencing around the world, realizing, quite suddenly, that all of the things we anticipated as predictable, secure, and stable were just figments of our collective imagination. Yet I try to do this in my own way – which is to have a wry perspective on it, and to try to entertain people, and even make them laugh. With American Lullaby, I can’t help but acknowledge that one of my biggest musical influences was Randy Newman, and in some ways, and I don’t think this was conscious, I was trying to approach the album they way I imagined he approached Good Old Boys. That is, he was telling a uniquely American story in little vignettes, running the gamut from sweeping, majestic depictions of America’s crimes, to hilarious wry statements, and using humor and satire to talk about very difficult things.
I would sum up American Lullaby as, “Big Stories, told intimately.”
That is my habit. I do approach it as short stories set to music. From the beginning, with “Ariel,” I did try to build on that sort of granular detail, which for me gives that sense of recognition and verisimilitude. I try to root things in the real world but then I make ample use of my poetic license, which is a polite way of saying you have to lie sometimes.
Growing up, I spent plenty of summers at the Philly Folk Festival watching Steve Goodman, Loudon Wainwright, and David Bromberg. These are all storytellers who peopled their storytelling with a lot of rich detail that was both very evocative and very familiar.
As you probably know, I wrote a rather long analysis of “Ariel,” and I wasn’t trying to be ironic – I really did think it deserved that kind of examination.
I was taking a photograph of the world I grew up in. I was trying to make it accurate, and depict subtleties, and the habits and social conventions of the time, and really build and depict that world in an evocative way. Ariel, with her vegetarianism and peasant blouse and “Hi” “I Guess I am,” that’s the era I grew up in and loved, for all the angst that was associated with it. And I was trying to turn it into a little film in a song. That you saw that was gratifying.
I made some fairly detailed observations in the piece – for instance, that I determined that the Dairy Queen and the American Legion Hall you sing about in “Ariel” were in Rochelle Park, New Jersey. Did I get that right?
The Dairy Queen, absolutely. That was the Dairy Queen. Frankly, I can’t remember where the American Legion Hall was. It certainly was in Bergen County. You know, after “Ariel” came out, I got a letter from someone who analyzed the song, and I always think of this when I do my songwriting workshops. This person gave me their really detailed interpretation of “Ariel,” including what he insisted were all these sexual innuendos – particularly in the line about “I had onion rings, she had a pickle, she forgot to tell me that she didn’t eat meat.” He said that obviously onion rings and pickles were sexual references. In fact, that was the furthest thing from my mind. But he’s not wrong! When you write a song, it really is subject to interpretation by anybody and everybody, and ultimately the listener’s opinion and interpretation is as valid as the songwriters. There’s another line in the song about fiddling with the vertical hold. When I wrote it, I was literally talking about how I had an old black and white TV with lousy reception, and to get a good picture you had to fool around with the vertical and the horizontal hold, so that’s the imagery I had in mind when I was writing that line. And after I wrote it, I totally recognized that it could be taken as meaning something else entirely. I didn’t write that line as innuendo, but afterwards I saw, yes, of course, that works. Part of writing is recognizing useful mistakes, and that was useful mistake.
Sometimes a pickle is just a pickle and vertical hold is just vertical hold.
People always ask me if there was a single Ariel. And my answer is, to be honest, it was an amalgam of all these teenage girls I had a crush on growing up in the suburbs, in Paramus New Jersey, all squished into one idealized Jewish hippie girl. Eventually, oddly enough, I sort of met her in the park after the song – her name is Alison, and we’ve been married for many, many years.
You were really ahead of the damn game on synthesizers. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t aware of this side of your career until I did some research, but it seems there are people out there who only know you because of your work in synthesizer education.
That’s true, but it was inadvertent. I authored the first consumer guide for synthesizers (The Complete Guide to Synthesizers, Sequencers & Drum Machines). That was in 1985, right after Midi came about. Here’s what happened: “McDonalds Girl” [off of Friedman’s third album, Rumpled Romeo] was banned, I was dropped by my label, I was stranded and not sure what to do. I had been to a trade show, and seen a sample of the Synclavier, the New England Digital Synthesizer. I was blown away by it, so I made my way to the New York offices of the Northeastern distributor of it, a guy named David Nichtern. I couldn’t afford one because at the time it cost 50,000 dollars, but I managed to make an arrangement with him to rent an hour a week to learn the instrument, which I did. It was the first multi-timbral sequencing sampler instrument, at the time the most powerful thing like it on earth. So, with no other knowledge of synthesizers, I became really adept on the Synclavier, the top synthesizer in the field. One day the office got a call from a publisher who was looking for someone to write a book on the new synthesizers. I just happened to be in the office, and someone said, “Well, Dean seems to know a lot about synthesizers,” so they handed me the phone, and I talked my way into a book deal. And honestly, I had no prior experience other than the Synclavier, I had no training as an electrical engineer, but because I was a quick study and at least adept on this one machine, and because it was all new to me, I was able to explain it in layman’s terms. I was all just trying to figure it out myself, and that characteristic made it intelligible and interesting to readers, and the book became a staple at universities and conservatories all over the world. After I wrote the two books, and they were best sellers in their niche, thirty years later someone asked if they could post the accompanying videos on line – I had made a three part series to accompany the books –and I said sure, go ahead, and that went viral. If you’ve had occasion to read the comments, they’re hilarious. A lot of stuff about my beard and my dramatic pauses, but a typical comment seems to be, “I spent three years in audio engineering school, and I didn’t understand anything about synthesizers until I saw your videos.” Even though the technology has changed, the physics of sound has not changed one iota. So they still are the go-to synthesizer how-to video series. At least twice a week I get an email from someone in Moscow, or Tokyo, or Sydney, thanking me.
Can you clear up something that keeps on coming up when one does research on you – Did you have anything to do with the famous Crazy Eddie jingle?
I didn’t write it, though that has been reported erroneously. I was simply invited to sing the lead vocal on an updated version that appeared for one summer’s commercial campaign. Then after the song was cut, I was hired to perform it at a big Crazy Eddie corporate meeting at the Beacon Theatre. So there’s videotape online of me singing the Crazy Eddie song, accompanied by dancing appliances, on stage at the Beacon Theatre.
VIDEO: Dean Friedman sings the “Crazy Eddie” theme song at the Beacon Theatre NYC
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One thought on “Dean Friedman: Ariel, Matzoh Balls and American Lullabys”
Thank you, Tim. I was reading an article about Dairy Queen and eventually wound up reading your story about Ariel and Dean Friedman. I was in 7th grade when this song came out, and just met Dean for the first time last year. He is hilarious, you are hilarious, I am hilarious. Life is hilarious. Thank you.