'Morning Joe' Scarborough Brews Up Second Career as Fiftysomething RockerZoe Camp |
There’s plenty to see in Times Square: flashing billboards, police horses, hot dog vendors, widescreen commercials and, worst of all, counterfeit Elmos roaming the streets in search of unsuspecting tourists. NASDAQ Tower is one of the prime purveyors of eye candy here in Gotham’s (nay, America’s) pulsing center, projecting news, ads and market quotes for all to see on a towering LED screen, 44 feet wide and 14 feet tall. February 16 was special, though: Those who glanced at the screen between 8:30 and 10PM were greeted not with chyrons, but a rock concert live-streaming from Prohibition NYC, a speakeasy-inspired jazz bar on the Upper West Side.
The show's headliner was none other than Joe Scarborough, star of MSNBC’s flagship news program Morning Joe, talk show host, lawyer, former Republican congressman and, unbeknownst to most of us, a prolific rock musician. By day, he can be found discussing the issues of the day (and more recently, talking trash about Trump) with his co-host, Mika Brzezinski. Come nightfall, he’s riffing with Morning Joe Music, a nine-piece band outfitted with a bevy of backup singers and a brass section.
Music isn’t a hobby for Scarborough, but rather a lifelong love affair. He began playing piano at age 5, switched to guitar at 12 and formed his first band at 14. His burgeoning career as a lawyer (and later, a media personality and politician) didn’t stop him from recording or performing in his spare time, even on the Hill. The most famous of these performances took place in early 2001, when Representative Scarborough played a party thrown on behalf of the National Federation of Independent Business. He covered the Beatles, the Stones and even Wheatus’ “Teenage Dirtbag,” with some minor lyrical edits (“jerk” instead of "dick"; “butt” instead of “ass”). “I think I should get points for not doing Perry Como songs, wearing green plaid pants, or singing ‘Stray Cat Strut,’” Scarborough, then 37, chuckled to The Washington Post, fully cognizant of the dadrock nature of the whole thing. "I'm trying to connect with the young people."
Sometimes he wishes he’d stuck with the Strat. “I was a coward — that’s the great irony,” Scarborough tells me over the phone. “I have jumped off of all of these cliffs in my life. I quit practicing law after two years, in debt, ran for Congress. There’s no way I should’ve won. I won. I quit Congress to get back home with my kids, and it should have never worked — but it worked, because I got this TV thing. The regret is that I never did the same thing with music.”
By the time Scarborough’s 50th birthday rolled around, he had hundreds of songs waiting in the wings, the bulk of which had never fallen on human ears. “I said, ‘You know, I’m either gonna start recording these songs or I’m gonna die, leaving behind 300, 400 songs that I’ve written,’” he admits. “It would be nice if somebody heard them.” Scarborough’s anxieties over his music (which he refers to as his “baby”) also contributed to the creative limbo — a little ironic, considering he’s spent most of his career impervious to haters.
“I never really cared whether I was accepted or rejected in politics,” he says. “I always said, ‘If you don’t wanna vote for me, that’s great.’ Democracy is great. Same thing with TV; I didn’t really care whether I succeeded or failed.” But music was different. “I would write a song, get it down on tape; I’d play the first 15 seconds to somebody, and say, ‘What do you think?’ And I’d turn it off, and there’d be a cloud ... over my head. I’d be going to this dark depression because somebody didn’t love my baby, what I just wrote. I think that fear of rejection, of the thing that actually mattered the most, was why I stayed away from it.”
For a conservative, Scarborough’s musical tastes prove pretty damn liberal. He named his first band the Establishment, as a nod to the Sex Pistols. The former Republican Congressman openly extols the praises of some of rock’s most outspoken liberals, including R.E.M., Bruce Springsteen, Prince, the Buzzcocks and Deerhunter. Elvis Costello, a previous Morning Joe guest, holds a significant place in his personal pantheon. Just this week, the host covered Costello’s classic “(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” on an episode of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert (3:45 in the above clip).
That Scarborough’s original material draws heavily from the rock 'n' roll canon — sometimes to the point of sounding downright indistinguishable from it — comes as little surprise. As living, breathing stand-ins for the ol' jukebox (and these days, the playlist), most bar bands regard the overt and indirect worship of “The Hits” as standard praxis — especially Morning Joe Music, which played Prohibition weekly before election madness took hold. “Let’s Fall in Love,” their musical calling card, is a waltz-y ballad that flies dangerously close to Cole Porter’s timeless “Let’s Do It,” while “Austin Texas” borrows liberally from the Eagles to recount MJM's trip to the titular city, for SXSW.
The Prohibition audience didn’t mind the retreads; if anything, they prompted the uptight Upper West Siders to finally let their guard down, elevating a posh gathering into a propulsive rock show. Even the usually well-contained media types let loose. Huffington Post co-founder Arianna Huffington nodded her head along to the music, while Brzezinski left her cordoned-off booth towards the end of the set to shimmy with the rest of the crowd, mouthing the lyrics as if she’d known them all her life. There were no hecklers — although, somewhere in the thicket of bodies, an intoxicated woman let loose repeated screams of “IOWA!” (“I think she ended up throwing up,” Scarborough recalls. “It was a fun time for all.”)
And so, with an existential war cry of "What the hell," Scarborough faced his fears and took the stage. Next on his agenda: those untouched troves of tracks, which will be bundled into four-track EPs and released on a monthly basis, beginning in March. If all of this sounds a bit lame to you, you're not alone. Scarborough hears your snickers — welcomes them, even. (He certainly anticipated mine when he sent me a link to his music via Twitter DM a few weeks ago, promising, “You will hate it!”)
"Mika [Brzezinski] said, 'You’re gonna get absolutely killed,'" he says with a laugh. "I was like, 'Yeah, I know.'" He continues: "I’m a Republican, and I’m on cable news, and I’m in my 50s. I kind of got a few things going against me." Morning Joe Scarborough's musical backstory certainly qualifies as corny, but compared to the rest of the politico-rockers (I’m looking at you, Jill Stein), he might as well be the Boss. Your move, Don Lemon.