Far be it from me to overthink an album full of dick jokes, but: Looking back, there was such a fascinating tension at work at the peak of Tenacious D.
Loud and buffoonish and slovenly though he may have been, for teenage me, Jack Black represented a super cool and unattainable intersection of rock stardom and Hollywood celebrity. My family didn’t have HBO, and this was years before YouTube, so his work on Mr. Show was something I had to learn about through word of mouth in hallowed tones. His asshole record-store clerk in High Fidelity was a recognizable archetype for me, a stand-in for people I’d encountered behind the counter in real life who were tapped in to ultra-hip galaxies of music still beyond my grasp. Among the rockers I already knew and loved, Black’s own band was widely beloved, but access to their raunchy comedy-rock was fleeting. Tenacious D felt like an inside secret shared among famous people and those savvy enough to be in the know. And then they dropped an album aimed squarely at the unseasoned musical and comedic sensibilities of your average teenage boy, and that mystique gave way to deep belly laughs.
Tenacious D, released 20 years ago this Saturday, was an album I’d spent much of my childhood preparing for — a little bit Wayne’s World and Wyld Stallyns, a little bit What The Hell Happened To Me? It had all the big riffs, compositional dynamism, and elaborate vocal interplay of the proggy hard rockers Black and his straight man Kyle Gass were channeling, but — in a bit of 1990s cultural runoff — its proper rock songs were stitched together with comedy skits and skimpier gag tunes, giving it the feel of a finely polished mixtape. Whereas their stage show remained just two guys with acoustic guitars, a minimalist shtick that got by on Black’s abundant charisma and the duo’s surprising musical acumen, for the album they called in an impressive roster of rock pros: Dave Grohl on drums, Phish’s Page McConnell on keys, the Vandals’ Warren Fitzgerald on guitar, and Redd Kross’ Steven McDonald on bass. The Dust Brothers, riding high off the success of Odelay and “MMMBop” and the Fight Club soundtrack, produced. Yet despite that very real connection to music royalty, the album was operating right in my juvenile wheelhouse.
Black and Gass had founded the band in 1994 when both were members of the LA experimental theater group the Actor’s Gang. After cycling through names including Responsive Chord and the Axe Lords Featuring Gorgazon’s Mischief, they settled on Tenacious D, a reference to basketball announcer Marv Albert’s catchphrase celebrating vigorous defensive play. Tenacious D began gigging around LA and quickly caught on within the city’s overlap between music and comedy. Naturally, one of their first big breaks came via another band from inside that Venn diagram, Tool, who asked them to open a few shows in 1995. (Imagine going to see these darkly mysterious modern prog deities and the opening act is two schlubby white guys with acoustic guitars cracking jokes.) By 1996, they’d appeared in the Pauly Shore movie Bio-Dome. By 1997, Mr. Show‘s David Cross and Bob Odenkirk helped them create their own short-lived HBO series. They got more opening gigs with huge names in alternative rock: Beck, Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters. In 2000, the year of Black’s breakout role in High Fidelity, they signed with Epic, a record label whose name was a perfect match for the band’s disposition.
By the time they recorded their album, they had amassed a formidable library of songs. Some were fantastical, like “Tribute,” a gleefully over-the-top celebration of classic rock tropes, in which J.B. and K.G. vanquish a demon by performing “the greatest song in the world.” (“This is not the greatest song in the world,” they clarify. “This is just a tribute.”) “Wonderboy” tells the story of Wonderboy and Nastyman, two powerful superheroes who turn out to be, you guessed it, the members of Tenacious D. Abilities range from “the power of flight” to “the power to kill a yak from 200 yards away with mind bullets” to “the power to move you,” lyrics that hinged on Black’s cartoonishly overblown line reading and ace comic timing. Was Black a little much? Definitely, but these songs were designed to weaponize that aspect of his persona, to both celebrate it and take the piss out of it. It was funny, but just as importantly, it was fun.
“Tribute” and “Wonderboy” were the album’s only official singles, and their enthusiastic embrace of the geeky, D&D-esque side of heavy metal lore was central to the D’s steez. (Note the gigantic Satan looming behind them on the album cover.) They further toyed around with the mythos of hard rock on tracks like “Rock Your Socks” and “The Road” and “Dio,” about how Ronnie James Dio was too old to rock so they’d have to grab the torch. There are also bits about intra-band squabbles like “Kyle Quit The Band” and “Friendship” (“Long as there’s a record deal we’ll always be friends”). There’s a song about how they’ll kick your ass with karate and pull out all your pubic hair. One of the funniest tracks on the album isn’t even a song — it’s a comedy bit about Jack Black in the fast-food drive-thru, a routine that winked at the duo’s less-than-fabulous physical condition without making a big deal out of it.
And then there are all the tracks about sex. It feels like the whole album is one X-rated punchline after another, but really it’s just an ongoing fixation that threatens to overshadow everything else. The vaguely twangy opening number “Kielbasa” is about what you think it’s about. “Double Team” is about what you think it’s about. The interlude “Cock Pushups” is, naturally, about working out your penis to get ready for all the sex rock stardom is about to yield. But none of this is nearly as memorable as “Fuck Her Gently,” a tender soft-rock ballad about how sometimes the ladies prefer finesse over power. “Fuck Her Gently” has always been my favorite Tenacious D song, largely because it practices what it preaches, accenting the overblown aspects in clever, conversational ways. The sequence of “That’s fucking teamwork!” into “What’s your favorite posish?” kills me every time. And of course it all ends with the promise that after all the gentle fucking, there will be hard fucking.
I watched these guys perform this song one December night in 2001 at my local arena, between sets by Bleed American-era Jimmy Eat World (I sadly only caught the closing “Sweetness”) and “Green Album”-era Weezer (their show supporting Maladroit the following summer was superior). Apparently the D also sang the Land Of The Lost and Fat Albert themes that night? Presumably because we were in Ohio, they played “Ohio” and “Whip It” too. I only faintly remember any of that, but I definitely remember “Fuck Her Gently” being the highlight of the night. In a set full enjoyably silly bombast, this callow-but-not-shallow power ballad loomed largest. “Fuck Her Gently” was hilarious to me as a teenager, and it remains hilarious to me in my late thirties. At their best, Tenacious D were the dumb kind of smart — the kind of smart you don’t have to think too hard about.