When I volunteered to be a backup singer for the band Risky Whippet’s annual holiday show, I was told that I would need to learn the lyrics for the Who’s “Christmas.” I immediately began brushing up on the Grinch soundtrack, trying to parse the inscrutable lyrics those happy residents of Whoville sing despite the green guy stealing all of their stuff, right down to the last can of Who-Hash.
“Is it ‘Yahoo doray, yahoo doray’ or ‘Fahoo fores, dahoo dores’ they’re warbling?” I asked myself. “I have no idea.”
Turns out it didn’t matter.
- PHOTO BY WENDELIN VAN DRAANEN
- THE PRINT POSSE: Tolosa Press’ Teri Bayus (left), New Times’ Ryan Miller (center), and the Sun’s Wendy Thies Sell (right) traded their keyboards for microphones on Dec. 13.
The Who’s “Christmas,” I soon learned, is a number from the rock band’s legendary pinball musical concept album, featuring such lyrics as “Surrounded by his friends he sits so silently and unaware of everything, playing poxy pin ball picks his nose and smiles and pokes his tongue at everything.”
I didn’t have to sing that line though. Most of my part for that song was more of an extended “ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah.”
So why was I chucking Dr. Seuss in favor of Pete Townshend, even as my own children watched the Chuck Jones-animated, Boris Karloff-narrated cartoon special at home while I rehearsed?
Blame it on my being a writer.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that I know local authors Wendelin Van Draanen (the Sammy Keyes series, Flipped, etc.) and Mark Parsons (Road Rash), but readers may be surprised to know that the couple—along with their sons Colton and Connor—occasionally play together as Risky Whippet. The band frequently seeks out a rotating rogues gallery of backup singers—referred to as Whipettes—to add some dimension to the sound and stage.
This year, Van Draanen put out a call for Whipettes, and I raised my hand to become the first-ever male Whipette (or Whip-Elf, as I was dubbed). Joining me behind the mic was Santa Maria Sun food and wine writer Wendy Thies Sell and Tolosa Press food and movie writer Teri Bayus. Two authors, three journalists—there was a lot of ink power driving the songs this go-round!
Van Draanen quickly dubbed us the Print Posse, and we diligently dove into the music and slaved away at a whopping two rehearsals, due to scheduling and life and etc. (The actual Risky Whippet members rehearsed more than that, of course.)
After our first rehearsal, we learned that we wouldn’t be able to bring any lyrics to the stage with us the night of the performance: Dec. 13 at Shell Café in Pismo Beach. Fortunately, despite being a trio of grammar and vocabulary experts, we didn’t know the meaning of the phrase “stage fright.” Still—and I may be outing myself as rock ’n’ roll illiterate here—I’d never even heard of a few of the songs on the set list. (Sorry Fitz and the Tantrums!)
Despite not containing any Grinch numbers, the set did include Bruce Springsteen’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” as well as a pseudo-serious rendition of “Deck the Halls.” This was all bookended, however, by some serious rock: “Mustang Sally,” “Chain of Fools,” “Breaking the Chains of Love” (why all the chains? maybe a Marley reference from A Christmas Carol?), “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” and “When Love Comes to Town.”
- PHOTO BY VAL PILLOW
- OOH-OOH, AH-AH: Risky Whippet regulars Connor Parsons (far left) and Wendelin Van Draanen (far right) encouraged the Whippettes of Dec. 13 (center left to right: Teri Bayus, Ryan Miller, and Wendy Thies Sell) to sound more like singers and less like monkeys as they ah-ah-ahed their way through a Who holiday number.
Buoyed by fellow singers with an obviously greater depth of rock history than I, we all plowed forward and ended up sounding—in my estimation—pretty good. Rockin’, in fact. (And Bayus, I must say, is a phenomenal bundle of energy. She joked before the set about bumping me off the stage with her dancing, but a few seconds into the first song, I figured out that she wasn’t actually joking. She put my feeble dance moves to shame.)
I expected the audience members at the actual show to enjoy themselves, but I wasn’t prepared for the rush of seeing a room full of people all holding their glowing smartphones in the air and swaying. Perhaps the goodwill had something to do with the presents thrown to the crowd between each number, but I was blown away by the multiple people who rushed to the dance floor and sang every word of the Who’s “Christmas” along with us.
Of course, there was little time to bask in the glow. Singing is hard work and doubly so if you’re whipping up a column at the same time. I was tapping notes into my own phone before we took the stage while Bayus fished out her own phone and eyed the French dip sandwich I’d ordered and the Tiki-influenced hamburger (topped with pineapple and a fried jalapeño) my wife ordered.
“Can I take a picture of your food for the article?” she asked.
And here I am: a reporter writing about a reporter writing about a reporter. How meta is that?
The rest of my life’s demands required that I depart shortly after my set, so I missed Risky Whippet proper’s spin on Metallica (“Off to Santa Santa Land!”) later in the evening. But I did keep tapping my toes on the drive home, keeping time to a mental “ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah!”
To those who are about to rock, Executive Editor Ryan Miller salutes you. Send comments to Arts Editor Jessica Peña at firstname.lastname@example.org.