Frank Zappa once declared that Philosophy of the World, a discordant, little-heard rock record from 1969 by four unknown sisters who called themselves the Shaggs, was “better than the Beatles.” Kurt Cobain counted it among his all-time favorite albums. Rolling Stone included it in the upper half of its list of 40 Greatest One-Album Wonders. “It’s hard to believe,” says Shaggs singer and guitarist Dorothy “Dot” Wiggin. “I like those better than ‘worst-ever band around.'”
For decades, Philosophy of the World has intrigued and confounded the select few listeners willing to brave its jittery rhythms and jumpy melodies. Some love it, some loathe it. But the music is a symptom of how it was created. When Wiggin and her sisters – guitarist Betty and drummer Helen – made the LP, they’d been forced to play music for most of their lives. As chronicled in an in-depth 1999 New Yorker profile, their father had taken it upon himself to make them rock stars after his mother told him of a premonition she’d had that the three girls would play in a band. So he took them out of school (enrolling them in homeschool) and made them learn their instruments and rehearse every day, from 1965 until his death in the mid Seventies, and booked them at weekly concerts in their hometown of Fremont, New Hampshire.
The album, which was recently reissued with rarely seen photos and new, Lenny Kaye–penned liner notes by Light in the Attic, contained Dot’s songs about feeling like she didn’t fit in (the title song), her deference for her parents (“Who Are Parents?”), her love for her cat Foot Foot (“My Pal Foot Foot”) and general confusion (“Why Do I Feel?” “What Should I Do?”). Some are happy, while some have an inexplicable sadness about them that even she can’t put her finger on. All are sung and played in unpredictable and unusual ways that won them their famous fans, which also include NRBQ’s Terry Adams, who launched the first Shaggs revival in 1980 by putting out the first reissue of Philosophy.
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The album has since gone on to inspire several other revivals, which have included tribute albums and even an Off-Broadway play about the group. Dot, who still lives near Fremont and has worked cleaning houses and mentoring at a center for young adults with disabilities, recently made another album under the moniker the Dot Wiggin Band (which features members of Bi Tyrant) and sings live when she can. Helen died in 2006, and Betty occasionally makes reluctant Shaggs-related appearances with Dot.
The Shaggs are now a distant memory, but as Dot tells Rolling Stone in a rare interview, she appreciates having been a part of something that has gone on to become so much more than it was. And she still marvels at her grandmother’s prophecy, which propelled her father to spearhead the group. “I’m sure he would be loving the way people still talk about the Shaggs,” says the singer, now in her late sixties. “That was his dream. I’m sure he has a big smile on his face wherever he is.”
What do you make of all the attention the album has gotten over the years? It’s had many second and third lives.
It’s hard to believe. I said to my sister, Betty, “How many times can they do the same CD over and over?” But of course, technology improves every year. It amazes me we still have a big fan base out there and they’re interested in the same album and songs.
What do you think fans like about the band?
The honesty of the story maybe and the originality. It wasn’t until 1999 when we went to the NRBQ 30th anniversary concert and performed there that we were aware of it. There were fans from California, Japan, the U.K. and all over. It was very strange. We just thought it was another life and that was part of it. Now it’s a new life and then it seemed to come alive again.
What does the album mean to you now?
I haven’t really thought about that. I guess to me it’s how much love is out there from the fans and how important it is to them.
What matters to you more is the fans, not something more personal?
More or less, yeah. I mean, I wrote all the songs on Philosophy of the World so the lyrics mean more to me than the music. Everybody disagrees with me but I don’t think I know enough about music to be writing my own songs. But that’s just my opinion.
That may be part of the appeal.
Right, and it was from the heart.
What strikes you when you look at the cover, with the three of you on it?
I wish I look like that now [laughs].
What stands out to you when you listen to Philosophy of the World now?
There are a couple of songs I really wouldn’t care if I played them or sang them again. They are the harder ones, but they also seemed to be the ones that everybody likes. “I’m So Happy When You’re Near” is one of them and “Why Do I Feel?” I love all the lyrics, but I guess I would since I wrote them. My sister doesn’t like to sing “My Pal Foot Foot” and “Who Are Parents?” I like the songs that the Dot Wiggin Band did better. I like to sing them better than the older ones.
What were you thinking about when you wrote the original songs? There’s some sadness about them.
I know. Everybody said that but a lot of them just came to me. “My Pal Foot Foot” actually didn’t have a happy ending but I made it into a happy ending. My cat Foot Foot disappeared and never came back. So I made it that he did come home. He was never found.
The song “Philosophy of the World” is interesting because it’s about wanting what you can’t have.
Right. That probably started with how my hair was always wavy or curly and I liked it straight. When I wrote songs, I would just think of a sentence and the words would come to me, like the cars and motorcycles and the long hair and short hair.
Yeah, but that is sad.
That’s true. I’ve said that with the practices with the new band. If I were ever to change lyrics, in “Philosophy of the World,” I would change “You can never please anybody” to “You can never please everybody.” [Laughs] But they said, “Oh, no, no. The way it is is good.”
What inspired you to write “Who Are Parents?”
I really don’t know. I always respected our parents, even though my father was strict and old-fashioned. There were a lot of kids who didn’t respect their parents and gave them a hard time so I was probably trying to get a message across to them.
When you think back to the time in your life when the Shaggs were going, what do you think of?
Mostly the dances. We did the Fremont Town Hall dances every Saturday night. I enjoyed watching the fans dance and all the kids dance. We even had some 10-year-olds there. It was kind of like a drop-off for the parents for a few hours and give them a break.
What did the crowds like you to play most?
They liked the fast songs. We did a lot of them faster than they should have been. They liked polka, their way of polka. They just liked to go around in circles real fast, so we did “The Wheelbarrow Polka.” They liked to dance.
Did the kids at the dances like your songs?
We got some negative feedback from a couple of them. My younger sister, Rachel, went to public high school and she heard a lot of it. They would tell her that we didn’t know what we were doing and that our music isn’t any good. She had to deal with it. We didn’t but she did.
Did it bother you to hear things like that about your music?
We started reading all the negative stuff on the Internet for a while but then I said, “Everybody is entitled to their own opinion.” My motto, from Bambi, was always, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say nothing at all.” I’m not sure everybody feels that way. So I just blocked it out. I think a lot of that is what bothers my sister, Betty.
The fact that your music is different is what makes it appealing.
That is true.
Who picked the name the Shaggs?
Our father. At the time, the Shaggy Dog movie was out. And then he gave us bangs; we didn’t have shaggy haircuts. But he combined those two and named us the Shaggs.
Your dad had you form the band after your grandmother had a premonition that you’d be musicians. What did you think of that when he told you?
We thought he was nuts.
Did you tell him that?
Oh, no, no, no, no, no. Not to him. His mother was his pride and joy. She died when we were all young but what little I remember of her is that she was nice. My father thought the world of her; we didn’t want to say anything to him that would make him think we were putting her down. I didn’t really believe in fortunes and all that stuff but I guess he knew what he was doing.
The liner notes to the original Philosophy of the World release described the band: “They are happy people, in love with what they are doing, and they do it because they love it.” Was that true?
It probably was true for me. Helen didn’t care one way or the other. Betty did it because we had to do it. It was my father’s dream, so we did it. And he paid for the voice lessons and all the instruments.
You were rehearsing in the band nearly every day for 10 years of your life, from ’65 to ’75. What’s a day in your life like now?
I never know what my schedule is. I’m applying for new jobs and waiting for calls. I lost three jobs in a month. I had surgery in February and took a six-week hiatus just to heal. I was working as a mentor and did cleaning at a day program for young adults with disabilities transitioning to adulthood. But they let me go. Then I was at the library and they let me go. So that was two big jobs.
I’ve been holding my own now but I’m at the end of my funds that I had saved so I’m starting to look for part-time work. My son is ADHD with special needs and he goes to a day program three times a week. So I do cleaning a couple of places just to hold my head above the water.
You had surgery. Is your health OK?
It is. It’s actually better than it was. I had bariatric surgery to help lose weight. I’ve lost about 90 pounds and I’ve got 20 more to go. I was diabetic before that and the day I left the hospital I found it out I am no longer diabetic. So that’s a big plus.
Do you still play music?
I put it on hold after I had my surgery, to recuperate. There’s a Shaggs tribute in New York City and they wanted me to go but I don’t dare go on buses right now. Also I have two dogs that are both blind and I don’t want to leave them for any period of time. One of them is also diabetic and I have to give him three insulin shots a day. Between that and job hunting, there is just too much going on and I couldn’t go to New York.
Is it something you want to get back to doing?
Once my life settles down.
Are you still close to your siblings?
Yes. We all live pretty close except for my baby brother who lives in Indiana and my oldest half-brother, who lives in Phoenix. The rest of us are between West Epping and Raymond.
Do your sisters have any interest in music again?
No. I’m trying to get Betty to agree to go to a meet-and-greet record signing and they’re going to try to get a couple shows in either New Hampshire, Maine or Massachusetts that I could drive to and not stay overnight. I’m trying to talk her into at least one of them just to sing a couple of songs but she hasn’t given me an answer yet.
I imagine she has her own life.
Yeah, she’s not really … She likes getting paid for it but she doesn’t really like the music part of it [laughs]. She figured she did it enough when we were into it.
Why have you stuck around the same area where you grew up?
I’ve always been a homebody and lived in the area.
What do your sons think of the Shaggs?
My son who is home with me, he’s into video games and is not really interested in anything. I just have to find a place for him to go when I go on tour. But my younger son, Matt, who’s also an adult and doesn’t live with me anymore, he loves it. He has it on his phone. He’s very proud of it.
What music do you like?
I still listen to the oldies. I listen to Herman’s Hermits; they were my all-time favorites and still are. I’m a member of the Peter Noone fan club. And I listen to NRBQ. When I was growing up, it was mostly Herman’s Hermits and the Beatles but as I got older I got into Elvis, too.
What was the first concert you got to go to?
My father wouldn’t let us go to concerts, so the first one was probably Peter Noone in the late Nineties. I saw Lisa Marie Presley in the same place he played and there’s been quite a few NRBQ concerts when they’re in driving distance.
In the New Yorker article about the Shaggs, it said that your dad kicked Helen out of the house when he’d learned she eloped. But the band kept going until after he died. Why did it continue?
Well, my father kicked her out because she got married behind his back. He kicked her out of the band, too. So we didn’t do nothing then. We practiced, but we didn’t have any shows. After a while he accepted it. She didn’t move back in – she was married – but she did join the band again. Then we started playing.
What got you back into playing music again?
When NRBQ had their 30th anniversary in New York, they invited me and Betty to do some songs. So we had to rent guitars and amps and practice. I had to say to Betty, “Whether you’re going or not, I’m going.” And I guess she didn’t want me to go alone, so she went with me. Doesn’t work like that now. It had all started again in 1980 or maybe ’81 when Terry Adams from NRBQ called and said he and Tommy found our record in a music store in New York and they loved it. That’s when people started getting interested again even though we weren’t playing.
Did you buy a new guitar ever?
No, I still have my guitar but somebody said the neck is warped and when you plug it in, it doesn’t work. But I’m keeping it for a keepsake.
Do you play guitar in the Dot Wiggin Band?
No, I just sing. I have arthritis in some of my fingers so I don’t think I’d be able to play now.
“My band told me they felt they had to tune their guitars flat so it would sound like ours for the Shaggs songs.”
How did you meet your band members?
Jesse [Krakow, producer and bassist] called me and said they were doing a fundraiser and were doing a tribute to the Shaggs. They invited us to go, not to sing, but to watch and sign autographs. Betty and I went; Rachel went, too. She was in the band toward the end but never on the records. That’s how I met them. Later, they told me they felt they had to tune their guitars flat so it would sound like ours for the Shaggs songs.
When you did the Dot Wiggin Band record, I read you were singing lyrics you’d had for a while.
Yeah, some of them are old. I wrote “Banana Bike” for Helen around 2000. It was about her. She lived with me for a while when she got older. And she found this yellow Stingray bike and would take off riding on it on the back roads in Epping. I never knew where to find her and I’d have to go out hunting for her in my vehicle. She heard it and said, “Are you making fun of me, Dot?” And I go, “No, Helen. I’m just telling you how it was going through that.” And she goes, “Oh, OK.” [Laughs]
How has it felt for you to be back onstage singing?
Good. It’s fun to watch the fans enjoying the music. One time I said, “Anybody who knows what I’m singing, help me out.” And I would talk to them afterwards. It was fun.
Lastly, some original copies of the Philosophy of the World have sold for up to $10,000. What do you make of that?
I was surprised. I have an original jacket but I don’t have the original album. I lent a couple out years and years ago and never got them back. Live and learn, right?