Day One hundred and forty-five: "CNR" from Internet Leaks
Introducing “CNR” one night on his last tour, Al explained that he called the late Charles Nelson Reilly’s widower for permission to release a song about the 1970s game show panel staple and he requested that the song not make him out to be too much of a sissy. Alec Baldwin had apparently played Reilly as something of a cartoon on Saturday Night Live not too long before and as both Reilly’s partner, and the keeper of his flame, Reilly's significant other was obviously a little hurt by that.
He had nothing to worry about, of course. Instead of stereotyping Reilly as a lisping, stereotypical queen, "CNR" deifies him as a modern day folk hero, a strapping, two-fisted slab of man meat capable of superhuman feats of badassery. The song is a riff on the curious, annoying afterlife of Chuck Norris as a human meme whose outsized feats have been disseminated throughout the internet and compiled in books with tongue in cheek titles like Chuck Norris: Longer and Harder: The Complete Chronicle of the World’s Deadliest, Sexiest and Beardiest Man, Chuck Norris Cannot Be Stopped: 400 All-New Facts About the Man Who Knows Neither Fear Nor Mercy and of course, the classic The Truth About Chuck Norris: 400 Facts About the World’s Greatest Human.
I watched and wrote about six Chuck Norris movies over the course of my Cannon box set projects (the five in the set and Sidekicks, a Control Nathan Rabin selection) so I can attest that there is nothing at all interesting about Chuck Norris, beyond his incredible feats in fighting, denim-wearing,prop bazooka-shooting and beard growing.
Yet an eternally inventive/annoying internet took a shine to him all the same. He was a blank, bearded cipher the wisenheimers of the internet elevated to faux-God status as a sort of culture-wide inside joke that, to be honest, was never all that funny. Like seemingly everything on the internet, it got old fast, and honestly, was never exactly hilarious in the first place.
Yet Al has a way of turning trash into treasure, mold into gold and slime into shine. In “CNR” he makes a hoary online trope into a shockingly fresh and visceral geek anthem by transforming a hackneyed illustration of why humor on the web is almost invariably less funny than incredibly annoying into a dual tribute to the geek majesty of Charles Nelson Reilly and the thunderous blues rock thunder of The White Stripes.
“CNR” is one of many songs I gained a new appreciation for by seeing them performed multiple times on tour. It’s a real testament to their versatility that being able to get onstage and perform exactly like Jack White and Meg White represents maybe one two-hundredth of guitar Jim “Kimo” West and Jim “Bermuda” Schwartz’s unique and remarkable skill set.
The White Stripes are a power duo and Al is all about authenticity, so before the song was performed each show half the backing band (the bassist and keyboardist) would exit the stage so that the remaining musicians and Al could play twice as loud as loud as they do as a quintet.
Jim “Kimo” West isn’t just forceful in an inimitably Jack White-like fashion; he’s earth-shaking in his fury and intensity. Schwartz’s drums are equally atomic in impact. Al howls the absurdist Match Game blues at similarly ear-splitting volume and with an equivalent level of pounding intensity.
Much of the song’s brilliance is conceptual. Reilly is a comically unlikely subject for a feverish, sweaty tribute but through sheer force of will, Al makes the gay and camp icon seem legitimately badass. Part of what made Al’s anecdote about Reilly’s partner not wanting him ridiculed or caricatured as an over-the-top queen is that there’s an underlying sincerity underneath all the absurdity and silliness here, a sense that Reilly is one of our guys, one of the weirdoes, the oddballs, the kids that never quite fit in, and consequently is eminently more worthy of homage, ironic or not, than a macho drip like Chuck Norris.
The Chuck Norris fact may be among the lowest form of comedy but Al transcends the hoariness of the format with wickedly inventive lines like “Ninja warrior, master of disguise/He could melt your brain with his laser beam eyes!” and “He had his own line at the DMV, he made sweet, sweet love to a manatee!”
Al and his band are generally very clean. On tour, they offer crisp renditions of songs that sound very much like their recorded versions, which in turn sound like the songs they’re parodying or paying tribute to. But on “CNR” Al gets dirty in a Detroit by way of the Mississippi kind of way. “CNR” sounds filthy and Al is clearly having a blast yelling the impossible virtues of the title badass as loudly as humanly possible.
The concept might be a little thin or iffy, but “CNR” kills in execution. “CNR” is a very worthy tribute to men who represented vastly different breeds of offbeat masculinity—Jack White and Charles Nelson Reilly—from the only dude weird enough to know they’d be the perfect combination for sonic and lyrical inspiration.
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