Roy Zimmerman performs Saturday at Michael's on Main in Soquel.
Roy Zimmerman performs Saturday at Michael’s on Main in Soquel.
(Courtesy Scott Hurst)
The Here & Now

Make parody great again? Roy Zimmerman takes lefty musical satire back on road post-Trump, post-COVID

Roy Zimmerman’s Trump-bashing “The Liar Tweets Tonight” was a pandemic internet darling. Now he’s venturing back out to see how musical satire plays in real life, starting Saturday at Michael’s on Main in Soquel.

Since the most recent time Santa Cruz audiences saw Roy Zimmerman live and in person, he’s become a kind of online celebrity. He went viral in the age of the coronavirus.

Last spring, deep in the pandemic, unable to tour and thus make a living, the master musical satirist put together a political parody song to the tune of the old folk hymn “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” called “The Liar Tweets Tonight,” aimed squarely at then-President Donald Trump.

Zimmerman was aided by a legion of background singers he dubbed the ReZisters, who each got their few seconds of screen time merrily singing the song’s chorus, “vote him away.” Among the ReZisters were even a few Santa Cruzans. The song was such a sensation, Zimmerman made a sequel, and another, and one more after that. Altogether, he made four (count ’em) versions of “The Liar Tweets Tonight,” the last of which dropped Election Day. By Zimmerman’s count, across various platforms, the videos were viewed more than 120 million times.

But that was then, and this is now. “The Liar Tweets Tonight” is fast becoming an artifact of a bygone age, and now that the pandemic is retreating and musicians are touring again, Zimmerman has chosen Santa Cruz County for his post-pandemic debut.

“It’ll be the first live (in-person) thing I’ve done since lockdown,” he said of his upcoming dinner-and-a-show gig at Michael’s on Main in Soquel on Saturday. “I’ve been playing for that tiny little lens for so long now, doing the video shows at home, it might kind of freak me out to see people’s faces. Maybe I’ll do the whole show in a funnel or something.”

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Zimmerman has been performing in Santa Cruz for decades, dating back to his days as the frontman for the mock folk quartet the Foremen. Through the years, his stock in trade has remained remarkably consistent, original songs written with his wife and musical collaborator, Melanie Harby, largely political in nature, steeped in irony and wit, and unapologetically from the left. Some of his most popular songs include “Chickenhawk,” “My Conservative Girlfriend” and “Dick Cheney.”

“I would never say I’m an equal-opportunity satirist,” Zimmerman said. “We don’t ever try to do the Capitol Steps thing where we just take on everybody and it’s all so absurd. No, we really do have an axe to grind.”

The song parody — borrowing the melody and structure of an existing song as a means of satire — has made “Weird Al” Yankovic a gazillionaire, but Zimmerman uses the style sparingly. Which was why “The Liar Tweets Tonight,” a political hand grenade worthy of Weird Al, was such an eye-opening experience for him. He and Harby encouraged people from across the country to contribute videos of them singing or playing to the song.

“We fell in love with that process,” he said of the effort to combine hundreds of homemade videos into one project. “It was so cool to see what people sent in, and we made lots and lots of new friends that we’ve never met in person.”

But now that Trump has been voted from office, Zimmerman is left to ponder other uses of social media and the internet to reach audiences. After the election, he released a song about the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, sung to the tune of the Temptations’ Motown hit “My Girl,” called “MAGA.”

“On social media, it’s really the song parodies that catch fire. It’s an immediate kind of medium and people latch on to a song they already know, and they get the joke right away,” Zimmerman said. “But it’s nice to return to original material as we go forward.”

The Marin-based singer/songwriter is cooking up two new album projects to release at the end of the summer. The twin albums are to be called “Wellspring” and “Groundswell,” the former a collection of cover songs that “have inspired us and informed us and made us laugh and gotten us through these tortuous times.” “Groundswell,” by contrast, will be his latest collection of original songs.

Zimmerman said that satire in the post-Trump era will be as needed, but will likely be a heavier lift: “You have to choose the humor more carefully now. The same old satire won’t do it anymore.”

That won’t stop him from crawling out of his studio and reemerging in the world. After the Michael’s on Main gig, Zimmerman has a few shows planned, but said he’ll probably stick close to the West Coast for 2021. Next year, however, he and his wife plan to embark again across the country, to those “blue dots” in red states where he retains so much of his fan base.

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“We’re going to have to fire up the machine again,” he said, “and see if going out and doing live shows is a viable thing again. I can’t wait to get out in front of people again.”

Roy Zimmerman performs live Saturday at Michael’s on Main in Soquel, with dinner at 6:30 p.m. and the show at 8.

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