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I don't have kids of my own, but I do like to borrow them from time to time. So when I heard animated songster Gustafer Yellowgold was once again the opener for the Polyphonic Spree's annual holiday spectacular, I couldn't resist sitting down with my favorite 5-year-old to watch Gustafer's DVDs and see what all the fuss was about.
You see, Gustafer Yellowgold comes to us from the sun, which he left in pursuit of colder climes (he set the controls in his sun-pod for "colder" and ended up in Minnesota). He lives in a quaint, shuttered cottage with best friend Forrest Applecrumbie, a pterodactyl, and a pet eel named Slim—short for Slimothy. Oh yeah, there's also a dragon named Asparagus living in his fireplace, and no, we're not high right now.
Gustafer is the creation of songwriter/illustrator Morgan Taylor, a rock music veteran who's been playing in bands since the '80s and most recently worked with the Autumn Defense, the soft-rock side project of Wilco's John Stirratt and Pat Sansone.
"It kind of happened by accident," Taylor says. "I was taking a break from my normal rock band life and started illustrating out the lyrics to some of my funnier songs...And some of the songs had a first-person narrative I knew wasn't me, so I was like, 'Well, who is my first person in these songs?' And I said, 'OK, I have this old cartoon character that I used to draw on bar napkins,' just for the fun of it. So I made this little yellow character the first person of these funny songs. And then the world started taking shape because of the songs that I had written...and all of the sudden it's my new career. I didn't sit down and make a conscious decision to start playing kids' music. And I think because it wasn't premeditated like that, it's actually just kid-friendly music, really."
Combining his imaginative, quirky illustrations with a pleasant, '70s soft-rock sound, Taylor's Gustafer DVDs are a breath of fresh air in the relative creative wasteland of modern children's music—if you've ever endured The Wiggles then you know what I mean—harking back to the whimsical soft psychedelia of children's classics such as The Electric Company and Schoolhouse Rock (not surprisingly two of Taylor's childhood favorites).
From the nature-obsessed lyrics ("Just one smell and you will believe/Where I come from we don't have these/Hear 'em callin' down for me/Hear 'em callin' from the trees/One for your brother, one for your sister/In a sandwich or a pretty vista/Pinecone Lovely, to thee I sing") to the soft-focus melancholy of songs such as "The Bluebird Tree" and "Dream in Green," Taylor's works are evocative of a simpler time, when children watched Bert and Ernie sing "Rubber Ducky" on Sesame Street while their parents listened to Harvest on the hi-fi in the next room.
"I guess there's something special about being moved in a melancholy way that's just really appealing to me," he says. "I know how I felt listening to those kind of songs when I was experiencing music at a young age. You know, where you're totally innocent, you're at peace with the world because you don't know very much yet, and you're able to get absorbed into this little musical moment...I just like how the music could take you over emotionally.
"It kind of goes back to the records I listened to when I was young," says Taylor. "You know, like, 4 and 5 years old, when I had my older brother and sister's record collection. My sister had a lot of Bread records, so I listened to a lot of that. I think that's probably one of the reasons my music is so mellow...there's a little bit of that sappy soft rock guy in me. And then I was a huge KISS fan starting at like age 8. I think that's why playing music that's a combination of music and cartoon characters is so appealing to me...
"There's some old Sesame Street and Electric Company music that I found and listened to recently," he adds. "Songs that are really good that now, as an adult, you can listen to with a different set of ears and be like, 'Wow, I liked this as a kid, and I listen to it now and it's just a good song.' You know 'Rubber Ducky'? It's a classic little song. You listen to it now, and it's not cheesy."
Gustafer Yellowgold is an easy sell for those of us prone to misty-eyed nostalgia (and sick of manic, annoying children's entertainment). But what about today's kids? You know, the ones with kiddie MP3 players, Firefly mobile phones and an affinity for nonsensical anime on speed? With both my borrowed 5-year-old and my middle-aged mother in tow, I set out to see if the appeal of Gustafer truly was ageless. Popping in Gustafer's latest DVD, Have You Never Been Yellow?, I have to admit I was skeptical. The 5-year-old certainly was, crossing her arms in silent protest for being forced to watch a DVD she had never heard of. But with a little prodding—"did I mention Gustafer's from the sun?"—her interest was quickly kindled, and one or two songs in, she was definitely digging it. "I like this song," she volunteered every minute or two between relaying every detail of every illustration that suited her fancy—"I like the purple moon," "The mustard slugs look like onion rings," etc. Luckily she forced me to take copious notes; otherwise I might've forgotten them all.
Amazingly, my mother also seemed to enjoy herself, as Taylor's illustrations contain plenty of cheeky and hilarious details—a grape jelly and pinecone party sub, Gustafer crying on a couch while talking to his pterodactyl therapist, etc.—for those on the lookout. And musically it's not half-bad, either. The little girl we saw raising devil horns at Saturday's Dinosaur Jr. show might scoff, but with songs that bring to mind everyone from Beulah ("Dream in Green") to the Ass Ponys ("Pterodactyl Tuxedo" had us humming their 1994 hit, "Little Bastard"), the music of Gustafer Yellowgold is certainly bearable—even downright enjoyable.
And these were just the DVDs. Obviously a live show—complete with projected animations, live instrumentation and audience interaction—would capture the imagination of just about any kid (or kid at heart).
Luckily for us, Dallas has a special place in Gustafer's heart. After a mutual friend showed the original 2005 Gustafer DVD to Polyphonic Spree manager Chris Penn, the New York City-based Taylor quickly had a reason to play Texas.
"They say that after watching the first song they knew that they had to have us," Taylor says. "They saw the Web site and saw pictures of us with Gustafer cookies. And they were like, 'You had us at the cookies.' So now we have to make cookies every time we come to Dallas.
"[They] asked me to come do their big Christmas show," Taylor says. "And it was then that we realized that we had this whole crossover appeal, 'cause up to that point we'd only played shows for kids. It all was happening so fast because we'd only been doing shows for probably three months at that point, and all of the sudden I'm on a stage in Dallas playing in front of 2,000 people."
Two years later, Gustafer Yellowgold has already brought Taylor more success and acclaim than any project of his long career. "We have crazy, really appreciative fans," he says. "They say that they're happy they have something that they can play their kids that calms them down," adding that some parents have even told him Gustafer DVDs are one of the few things that can make their autistic children stop and focus. And with more Gustafer in the works, including a storybook and an off-Broadway production called Gustafer Yellowgold's Mellow Spectacular, kids (and parents) will have plenty to focus on in the coming years.
"There's a lot of yellow stuff around our house," admits Taylor.
We certainly know what our favorite borrowed children are getting for Christmas. As Gustafer himself might say, "We're keeping it yellow."