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- Posted on Jan 22nd 2009 4:00PM by Steve Baltin
Their love and knowledge of music, something they developed sharing stages with the likes of Springsteen, the Stones and jazz giants in their early standup days, goes well beyond their novelty songs, like 'Born in East LA,' 'Mexican Americans' and the classic 'Earache My Eye.' Chong got his start as a country musician in Canada; Cheech was an R&B devotee in his native L.A.
On their current tour, a reunion 25 years in the making, the pair are proudly displaying those musical chops. Keeping in the musical vein, they were very happy to talk with Spinner about Miles Davis' sense of humor, how jazz inspired them to be comedians and the relationship between hip-hop and smoking.
You've been doing the club dates, but in terms of the consistent travel schedule, it's been a while. How are you enjoying it?
Chong: Loving it. I can see why Barbra Streisand and Cher do 15 farewell tours, 'cause I love it.
Is this the first of many farewell tours?
Chong: No [laughs], this is probably the first and last, because we'll probably get an offer for a movie and go back into movie mode.
So everybody better get out there.
Chong: Exactly, 'cause it may not happen again ... Cheech and I enjoy doing what we're doing, but we can only do it for so long.
Cheech and Chong as a duo hasn't been active for almost 25 years. Were you surprised by the reception?
Cheech: Not really, because I get it every day when I walk down the street. People from 8 to 80 come up to me, so I knew there was an audience out there. I was just surprised to see how young it was. Eighty percent of our audience is now between 30 and 40. They were not alive the last time we were onstage, or they were five years old.
When did you feel the chemistry come back together?
Cheech: Like, the second we stepped onstage. It's part of my DNA, that Cheech and Chong stuff. And we didn't really rehearse any of it. We kind of talked about it a little bit: "Remember that bit? How's that go? OK, let's go do it." It felt like we had taken a week off, not 30 years.
You guys checked out the Jay-Z show last night. A lot of the Cheech and Chong humor has been picked up by hip-hop artists. Do you know a lot of those guys and their music?
Cheech: I know a fair amount of them. I know the main guys, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Ice-T and Jay-Z. I like Kanye West.
Do you know the smokers?
Cheech: They're all smokers. Hip-hop and smoke go together probably even closer than Cheech and Chong and smoke [laughs].
I've had this conversation with people recently about the changing mores of rock 'n' roll, and how sex and drugs are now out of it. That's gone on to hip-hop. It seems like you guys have more in common with that world today than rock.
Cheech: The thing that's really funny about Cheech and Chong is we're loved by everybody: rockers, indie rockers, hard rockers. Metalheads, or whatever they are, they're Cheech and Chong fans. The other thing I'm noticing now that's really strange is our audience is not necessarily liberal or left-wing. There's just as many right-leaning people into Cheech and Chong. You start saying stuff about Obama, you hear [groans].
Chong: Our audience is more rock 'n' roll. But that's where it came from -- it's the musician's attitude. This is what made Cheech and I big in the concert scene -- we have a musician's sense of humor. We're up there like musicians, just trying to finish the gig. And so when someone yells something out, it doesn't throw our timing off. It helps us, because we play characters that could absorb that kind of crap. And we did it purposefully, everything from Alice Bowie to Blind Melon Chitlin, and there are a couple of black characters Cheech hasn't done yet, like Basketball Jones. Our first comedy club experience was in black clubs. We played soul clubs and we played with Cannonball Adderley and Bill Withers. And we had those audiences just screaming, 'cause we knew how to translate humor to where they would enjoy it.
Who were the most memorable musicians you've played with?
Chong: We'll have to start with Cannonball Adderley. He was a comedian, too, in a way. He would preach a little bit: "Mercy, mercy." All jazz musicians love to talk. Charlie Mingus was another kind of preacher. Jon Hendricks, the singer, could rap forever. You know what I found out? Miles got his sound and his style because of his limitations. It cracks me up when I hear that. Miles is known as one of the greatest trumpet players of all time, but he couldn't play the high register. He never had chops, and so guys used to tell Miles, "Just stick with what you know." So he invented the muted sound, made it popular. Next thing you know, Miles is probably the most famous trumpet player. Much the same as Mick Jagger. Mick Jagger tried to copy James Brown when he danced, but because he was so bad he developed his own style. It was nowhere near James Brown, so when he dances I crack up, because I've seen him trying to dance like James Brown. He tried to be a soul brother, but he's this English kid.
Talk about some of the musical bits you're doing and how those songs might have changed over the years.
Chong: I used to do 'Up in Smoke' in my act, and I changed the lyrics. What we're doing now in the show is the old, original lyrics, and I couldn't remember them. So we got it written up on the screen and I turn around every once in a while just to remember what the lyrics were. 'Born in East L.A.,' that was a song that Cheech did on his own. I was pissed off at him because he had written it and didn't really include a part for me in it. That was one of the reasons we broke up. Now, 30 years later, I'm doing the song and I'm loving it ... Back when I had my 60th birthday, Cheech said to me, "We should get together and just do music." I thought that was a lame idea. Then, just before we did this tour, I got with Cheech and said, "Cheech, we should put a super band together and just do music." And it was Cheech's turn to say, "No, that's a stupid idea" [laughs].
Cheech: 'Born in East LA' is just as significant today as it was when I put it out, maybe more so. And this is the first time we've ever done 'Mexican Americans' onstage, and that is one of the biggest hits in the show. When we start it, the crowd roars. That wasn't even a record -- it was just a bit in a movie.
Tommy, you got your start as a musician. Talk about how your musical background shaped you as a comedian.
Chong: It's not so much my musical background, it was my musical taste. The reason I was into jazz was that there was a little jazz club in Calgary, which was the only place open at night. And because I was a rock 'n' roll musician, I loved the life, and I learned to love jazz. The thing is about jazz is it's improvisation. They take a theme and write their own music to it. To me, that's what comedy was. Every jazz musician I talked to was a comedian. They had that sense of humor. Louis Armstrong smoked reefer all his life. That was the other similarity: All jazz musicians not only smoked dope, they used hard drugs, too. But they have this incredible timing ... It's all about timing.