By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
"It was a catharsis, a 'fuck you' to the metal bands, 'cause I could never attain that--my hair wasn't long enough, or the band wasn't quite right." Cunningham, almost unfailingly polite, is gathering steam now, leaning forward intently. "It was like, 'Fuck Whitesnake; fuck Yngwie [Malmsteen]; fuck all the jazz guys who said, "Oh, I learned how to play Rush in the ninth grade and now I'm done with it"; fuck the department that said I wasn't playing the piano right...fuck playing scales and fuck all the complicated shit I could never understand and fuck playing music the way it's 'supposed' to be played...I wanted to have fun.
"I was so frustrated because I could never be Vince Neil or David Lee Roth, not starting at this simple, stupid college-band man-child place...I had started looking at my metal bands more for their tongue-in-cheek entertainment value; I wanted to be weird, but not that clever 'Hey, look at me' weird...It was like I was trying to take a bowl of spinach and love and make a cereal out of it. I wanted to mix different ideas, but so simply that all the entertainment would come from the act. I wanted to create the whole atmosphere, like at Haussner's, and not just play songs."
When Mauve Oed fell in love, he lost interest in the duo, and Corn Mo has soldiered on alone, taking an approach that's a combination of his hero, Danny Kaye ("he's such a performer") and the unlikely role model of senior CNN correspondent Don Harrison. "I want to keep things simple, almost Pee-wee [Herman]-like, but as if Don Harrison was in the band...I try to treat the people at my shows as if they were royalty, if I can, because to me it's a godsend that they come...I even try to win the hecklers over. After one show this guy came up and said that seeing me play inspired him to stay up all night making pottery, and to me that's what it's all about."
So Mo has set his sights on the college circuit: "I would just like to make money at this, doing only this," he says, echoing musicians everywhere; after all, if the cretinous Carrot Top can make a go at it (with an act that's basically spastic, hyperactive foot-jiggling), why can't Corn Mo?
The truth is that beneath the off-kilter songs about rocks and wet dogs and junior high, Corn Mo connects with basic suburban truths: the loneliness behind trying to fit in, the need to find one's own way, the rewards of a life that may not necessarily be set up to reward you. In an age where so many of us have lives whose sections are totally isolated--quadrants plotted out on the concrete grid of roads and freeways, connected only by necessity and the car--music may be the only great unifier left. What do Vince Neil and David Lee Roth--or Axl Rose and Layne Staley--sing if not their era's version of the suburban adolescent blues, field hollers for Camaro-driving kids working at Burger King?
Corn Mo/Cunningham is not completely of that genre, but he understands it better than most, having come to pop through pop itself, understanding the links between Kenny Rogers, H. R. Pufnstuf, and Rush not through analysis, but by having grown up with them. He comes off like a cross between Beck and Jonathan Richman, but without their distance. Although many of his songs date from his Flying Couch Potatoes and Corn Mo/Mauve Oed periods, he's working on new ones and has a promising rough demo tape put together; he can be caught around town both solo and with his new electric band, 357 Lover. "357 Lover gives me a chance to sing in a way that I can't do solo," he explains, again betraying his love of over-the-top vocal Styx-isms.
Steve Carter--of Little Jack Melody fame--is another musician who has devoted himself to a uniquely personal vision of what music should be. Corn Mo and Mauve Oed opened for him many times in the early '90s. "He's really genuine," Carter says of Cunningham, "and he has singularly large testicular deposits; it's not easy, what he's doing, and I have a lot of admiration for him.